So it comes to this for the Washington Nationals. You won 98 games during the regular season, more than any other team, you electrified a fan base that had nothing to cheer for except for the president’s race in between the top and bottom half of the fourth innings (always bet on Lincoln, by the way). You took over a town that was is, and will always be about football, and who just drafted Robert Griffin III. Now you are one loss from an empty winter, and you are trusting your season to…Ross Detweiler. That’s what you get for being gutless.
Nothing against Detweiler, who has perfectly good numbers for a fourth starter, but he probably shouldn’t be pitching tomorrow. However, the Nationals cast their lot when they made the single most ridiculous choice in baseball history by shutting down Stephen Strasburg on September 7th. It stunk then and it stinks even worse now. It should get Mike Rizzo fired, or at least severely embarrassed in public by Davey Johnson after Kyle Lohse sends the Nationals packing on Thursday.
Of course, Strasburg wouldn’t likely be starting tomorrow’s game. He would have started game 2, when Jordan Zimmerman was pummeled in a three-inning nightmare stint. Zimmerman should have been starting game 3, and with Strasburg on the hill after Gio Gonzalez, he likely would have been pitching with a 2-0 series lead. But the Nationals brass decided that Strasburg’s long-term ability to put on a Washington uniform was more important than the team’s best shot at a title since 1994, when the then Expos had the league’s best record on August 12 and, well, you know the rest.
No one wants to see Stephen Strasburg injured, and maybe he is just one pitch away from snapping his right arm off like a Thanksgiving wishbone, but maybe he was poised to put up a legendary October, and lead a city to the World Series for the first time in 89 years? The Nationals are loaded with young talent, but maybe this is their only shot at the ultimate prize? If we don’t know what the future holds for Strasburg should he pitch right now, how do we know what the future holds for the Nationals as a group? Strasburg could get injured, yes, but so could Gio Gonzalez, or Ryan Zimmerman, or (gasp) Bryce Harper.
Rizzo’s decision to treat Strasburg like a long-term commodity was insulting. It was insulting to the fans, who have waded through nearly a decade of awful teams anchored by horrible pitching staffs (come on down, Odalis Perez). The Nationals seemed to be doing everything right. They built a swanky new ballpark to replace the awful RFK. They drafted the right players. They built a winner. Two million-plus fans came out for the first time since Nationals Park opened in 2008, and they came because they were watching the best all-around team in baseball, and they thought that they had a shot at a title. Benching Strasbourg sends the direct message that filling the seats for years to come is more important than giving the fans a moment they can be proud of. What incentive do you have to follow a team that will think like that?
Rizzo’s decision is insulting to the players. Every player’s goal is to play in the World Series, and chances to compete for baseball’s ultimate prize are few and far between. Over the course of 162 games, many things have to break right for a team to come out on top. So what would your reaction be if you got the breaks, only to have your GM, the man charged with improving your team, take away one of your most dangerous weapons when you need him most? Doesn’t that send the message that Strasburg is bigger than the team? Also, isn’t a “shut-down” Strasbourg just the same as an injured Strasburg?
Ultimately, Rizzo’s decision is insulting to Strasbourg. Sure, at 24, Strasburg has many theoretical years of pitching ahead of him, but how many of those would he trade for a World Series ring right now? When Strasburg is remembered twenty years from now, will he be remembered solely as the pitcher whose GM made him quit when he had his best shot? Time will tell.
In the big money world of professional sports, there will forever be a thin line between gutsy athlete and marketable commodity. By shutting down Strasburg, we will forever know on which side of the line the Nationals stand. They chose commerce over championships, and their players, especially Strasburg, as well as their fans will pay the ultimate price.