The title of "ace" of a team's pitching staff is often bestowed upon a pitcher as if it were a nickname. It is prematurely applied to any and all types of pitcher, like a "Player of The Week" award.
But ace is not a label to be categorized with lesser distinctions, such as:
- Opening Day starter: Strasburg has held this distinction for the past two seasons for the Nats, despite never completing a full season in his four-year career. Being named Opening Day starter typically carries more weight than it should. As if Strasburg's case were not proof enough, former Nationals' starter John Lannan took the mound on Opening Day in consecutive seasons for Washington, while Jordan Zimmermann has yet to do so.
- All-Star: Selecting players for the Mid-Summer Classic is an inexact science at best. Strasburg was selected as an All-Star last year, when he was 9-3 with a 2.81 ERA at the All-Star break, according to James Wagner of The Washington Post. But he was named one of this season's biggest All-Star snubs by Matthew Pouilot of Hardball Talk at NBCSports.com when he was not selected to the 2013 NL All-Star squad after compiling a 4-6 record and a 2.24 ERA.
- "The best pitching prospect in generations": Strasburg was so labeled by Albert Chen of Sports Illustrated on June 21, 2010, shortly after his MLB debut. This is an important distinction in a sport that places such a high value on prospects and and the science of scouting. But it is subjective, nonetheless.
No, Ace is a title, in the same way that "Sir", "Chief" and "Captain" are titles.
Like those monikers, this title is to be worn like a brand, an indelible mark that is burned into a pitcher's reputation throughout his career. It remains with him into his retirement, and well after his death.
Why does this designation stand the test of baseball time?
Because it is so difficult to earn.
Until 2013, Strasburg had not done nearly enough to earn the title of ace. But things changed this season.
First, there was the game on May 16 against the San Diego Padres in Strasburg's hometown. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman committed a throwing error during the fifth inning, something he had done with disturbing regularity in Strasburg's starts.
In his previous start, another Zimmerman error was just one thing that rattled Strasburg. He lasted only 5.0 innings as he took the decision on May 11 in the Nats' lost 8-2 to the Chicago Cubs. Strasburg surrendered five hits and four runs, but no earned runs.
After the game, catcher Wilson Ramos talked to Bill Ladson of MLB.com about Strasburg's composure, or lack thereof:
I tried to tell him the other day after the situations like that, you have to keep your head up. You can never put your head down. Every time you put your head down, he lost the focus. You need to fight all game. He has to fight 27 outs. You have to fight all game.
But things turned out differently in San Diego, and it all started with Strasburg. After another Zimmerman error, Strasburg motioned to his third baseman and mouthed "I got you". He stayed true to his word, getting out of the jam and lasting 8.0 innings, a career high at the time. Strasburg surrendered only three hits and one earned run as the Nats won 6-2.
The symbolic act of Strasburg picking up one of his teammates was not lost on catcher Kurt Suzuki, as he told Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post:
I was going to go out there. I was thinking about going out there and talking to him. Once he got the ball back, he looked at Zim and said, ‘I got you.’ Once he did that, I turned around and went back to home plate. Because I knew he was going to do it.
Then, on August 11,Strasburg threw his first career complete game, while also hurling his first career shutout. He needed only 99 pitches to complete a sweep, surrendering four hit and striking out 10 in the process.
Strasburg has now become a top of the rotation starter that can realistically retire all 27 batters he faces in any given game. That is expected of an ace.
But the ace is entrusted with another responsibility, one so great that many do not have the intestinal fortitude to carry it out.
The ace must act as the protector. The enforcer. The sharpened end of the stick.
Former Brooklyn Dodgers ace Don Drysdale did an excellent job of outlining this particular part of the ace's job description. In a quote archived by The Baseball Almanac, Drysdale said that "if they knocked two of your guys down, I'd get four. You have to protect your hitters."
The Nationals needed Strasburg to do just that over the weekend. Bryce Harper had been hit three times by Braves pitchers in recent games.
Harper was first hit on August 6 by Julio Teheran, in his next at-bat after admiring a home run in the third inning. Teheran's actions were peculiar, considering his teammate Justin Upton was not plunked by a Nats pitcher after admiring his go-ahead home run on August 5, just the night before.
Harper barked at Teheran as he walked to first base, and the benches cleared. But no punches were thrown - and no Braves' hitters were thrown at. Gio Gonzalez failed to exact revenge in that very same game, and Jordan Zimmermann failed to do so the following day.
Harper disagreed with the lack of retribution during an interview with Mark Zuckerman of CSNWashington.com the day after the game, saying "I think if I’m the pitcher on my team, I think I’m gonna drill somebody,”
Then, on August 16, Harper was hit twice in the same game by two different Braves pitchers. Again, no retribution.
Enter Stephen Strasburg.
In the top of the first inning on August 17, Strasburg was staked to a 2-0 lead. He quickly gave one run back in the bottom of the frame on a lead-off homer to Jason Heyward.
Next up was none other than Justin Upton. The same Justin Upton who admired his home run almost two weeks earlier, and hit the game-winning home run the night before. He also happens to be one of the Braves' best players.
Three good reasons to hit him.
Strasburg needed only one reason to hit Upton: it was his duty as the team's ace.
Strasburg drilled Upton in his back. Upton took his base without much fanfare, while seemingly surprised that the Nationals would actually respond to three unabated attacks on their best player.
After needing a double play to get out of the inning in which he surrendered one run, Strasburg still received an overwhelmingly positive greeting as he entered the dugout, with every single Nationals player and coach congratulating him for his reprisal.
But Strasburg was not done.
In the very next inning, Strasburg threw behind Andrelton Simmons on consecutive pitches. Although a warning had been issued to both dugouts after
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