Posts Tagged ‘Washington Nationals’

Stephen Strasburg, the Long Haul, and the Short Thinkers

The easiest thing on earth to understand is that Stephen Strasburg isn’t thrilled with his shutdown. The hardest thing on earth to understand, for an awful lot of people still, is why the Washington Nationals stuck to the plan with the postseason dead in their sights and the World Series a distinct possibility. Somewhere in between is a point too often bypassed, whether you favoured or objected to the Strasburg Plan.

Former major leaguer Doug Glanville, now an ESPN writer, doesn’t bypass the point. “[W]hat is of greater concern for the Nationals is how they went so far to protect Strasburg and, in doing so, may have placed doubt where it wasn’t before for him,” Glanville writes this morning. “He now is worried about letting his team down; he now knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can be emotionally unavailable and distracted on the mound, a place where he used to be comfortable. He knows he can be shaken to his core.”

“It’s not just about one player. I want to be here for the long haul, for many years to come,” says Strasburg, even if he doesn’t really want to be shut down . . .

Strasburg wasn’t exactly quiet or timid expressing fears of letting the team down prior to Friday night, when his rough outing against Miami—he barely lasted three innings and got strafed for five runs and two home runs, in a game the Marlins hung on to win after the Nats got him off the loss hook—prompted manager Davey Johnson to impose the shutdown perhaps a few innings before actually planned or decided. He just never expressed them in verbiage quite as strong as he deployed the morning after.

“I don’t know if I’m ever going to accept it,” Strasburg mourned. Then, referring to the near-incessant writing and analysing that’s accompanied the Strasburg Plan, he said, “When that’s all you hear, it’s hard for it not to bother you. It is what it is. It sucks.”

Yet Strasburg also seems to know just what Glanville means, even if he’s not in Glanville’s seat in the observation tower. “I’ve got to move forward and be here for this team,” he continued. “It’s not just about one player. I want to be here for the long haul, for many years to come.”

The righthander who’s just finished his first full season following the Tommy John surgery, recuperation, and rehab has already been shaken to his core. He admitted to Johnson that he’d had trouble sleeping and been haunted by fears of letting his mates down. By Saturday morning, Strasburg had the highest ERA on the Nats’ starting rotation based over the group’s last ten starts each. And he had not been his full-powered self in recent outings overall.

“[L]eaving little room,” writes Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post, one of the Strasburg Plan’s stubborn defenders, “for critics of the Nats’ conservative medical protocol to continue braying.”

Not that that’s stopping them. It’s one thing to critique how the Nats have played the Plan publicly. “Had [general manager Mike] Rizzo had a general idea of a limit and kept it to himself during spring training, he could have imposed it now, citing Strasburg’s stuff flattening out,” writes Anthony Witrado of The Sporting News. “It still would have been a major story with several points of view, but it wouldn’t have been a distraction for an entire season and wouldn’t have worn down Strasburg’s psyche, as Johnson claimed it did.”

But it’s something else entirely to dredge up the shooting-themselves-in-the-foot argument against shutting Strasburg down with the Nats knocking on heaven’s door, so to say. Strasburg’s a competitor. No questions asked. But if you really think the Nats can’t get there or stay there for most if not all the postseason haul, you haven’t really been watching this team play.

Don’t dismiss the possibility that the hype surrounding the Strasburg Plan didn’t creep into the psyches of the rest of the pitching staff now and then. They, like many non-pitching Nats, have said at various times they’d rather be with than without Strasburg. But they’ve also said, and this is the part lots of people bypass, too, they’d rather have a healthy than a hindered Strasburg as well. No matter who among these Nats feels strongest about a Strasburg-less postseason this year, you’d be hard pressed to find any Nat who doesn’t appreciate that they’re being built for the long term, and that a single postseason appearance is not in their thinking.

Maybe now that the issue’s resolved, more or less, those Nat pitchers—dearly though they’ll miss having Strasburg taking his regular turns—are made of stuff hardy enough. The brawl the Chicago Cubs instigated Thursday night smothered Jordan Zimmermann’s own recovery from a horrible previous start, and Zimmermann’s outing is just one example.

And the whole team? With Strasburg, the Nats pending Sunday’s outcome have a .619 winning percentage and, by the way, the best record in baseball. They’ve also got a .604 winning percentage in the games Strasburg didn’t start before the shutdown was announced. Would you like to know how many World Series winners have gotten there with a regular season winning percentage around .604? Let’s look at just the last ten Series winners:

2011—St. Louis Cardinals, .556.
2010—San Francisco Giants, .568.
2009—New York Yankees, .636.
2008—Philadelphia Phillies, .568.
2007—Boston Red Sox, .593.
2006—St. Louis Cardinals, .516.
2005—Chicago White Sox, .611.
2004—Boston Red Sox, .605.
2003—Florida Marlins, .562.
2002—Anaheim Angels, .611.

I see four teams with .604+ winning percentages winning among the last ten World Series, including a couple of wild card winners. (2002 Angels, 2004 Red Sox.) I see one team (2007 Red Sox) not all that far away from .604. Six of the last ten World Series winners did no better than a .568 regular-season winning percentage, and one (the 2006 Cardinals) barely got past .510. You’re going to argue that the Nats, with a .604 winning percentage without Stephen Strasburg thus far, are killing their World Series possibilities?

Now watch some of the brayers fume that those who think as I just expressed are trying to say, “Nice going—you’ve just said the Nats can win without him as well as win with him.” You can look at it that way if you like. And you’d be wrong. This year’s Nats can win without him, but don’t pretend they’d like to or that it wouldn’t be harder. Of course it would. But how much harder would it be to make their long-term stand if they lose him due to imprudence? And if you think these Nats haven’t had bigger challenges than the Strasburg Plan, you haven’t followed their season unless Strasburg’s on the mound.

They’ve already had their intangibles tested, including and especially playing around their injuries. And these lab Nats still have the best record in baseball pending Sunday’s outcome.

They may have misplayed the Strasburg Plan when dealing with it publicly. Some of the brass’s comments have bordered on laughable. Johnson, Rizzo, and others can’t hang it on the press when they’ve been dropping it all on the press at every known availability, practically. They know it. But you’d have to assume, unless there’s undetected evidence otherwise, that a team playing it smart with a young Tommy John recuperant’s long term physical health isn’t going to ignore his parallel psychological health.

Every Nat from the principal owner down to the rawest September callup knows Strasburg’s feelings about being shut down. What they have to remember, and may have to remind him a little more than now and then, is what Strasburg himself said following up.

I’ve got to move forward and be here for this team. It’s not just about one player. I want to be here for the long haul, for many years to come.

Stick tight with that, Stras. Make it your mantra if you must. But hold tight and don’t let it go.

And when you add a few future postseason trips to your resume, you’ll look back on how much this shutdown and its attendant hype sucked. Then, if you’re as mature as you’re showing even now, you’ll probably say, “Thank God they didn’t let me forget I wanted to be here for many years to come.”

If that’s good enough for Strasburg, and good enough for the Nats, it ought to be plenty good enough for everyone else. Ought to be, but probably won’t be.

The Chicago Cubs, Slow Learners

They’re named after baby bears. Thursday night, they behaved like babies. And one of the infants in the middle of it, who actually began as one of the field’s diplomats, still insists on taking the low road.

“You’re up 7-2, Lendy Castillo’s pitching, it’s 3-0,” harrumphed Chicago Cubs catcher Steve Clevenger. “You don’t swing in that situation. Things happen.”

Let’s see. It was the fifth inning. The Washington Nationals, who’ve already played with a little more than derring-do to build that 7-2 lead, have the bases loaded, two out, and Jayson Werth at the plate. Castillo, a Rule 5 player who isn’t used much otherwise, hoping to impress his brass, but not exactly doing a fine job of that thus far, has fallen behind Werth 3-0.

Standing by their men . . .

The fifth inning. Not the eighth. Not the ninth. Four more innings to go. Did nobody teach Castillo, Clevenger, or any of these Cubs that they play nine innings in real baseball? No wonder the Cubs are going into the 105th year of their rebuilding effort.

Some of what’s likely to be forgotten about Thursday night is Kurt Suzuki whacking a three-run bomb to support Jordan Zimmermann in a nice bounceback start, punching out nine in seven innings’ work; or, the two-run bomb Adam LaRoche would hit not long after everyone went back to his dugout.  None of what’s likely to be forgotten, and I notice surfing around that the Cubs don’t have as many defenders as they’d probably like to have this time, is the Cubs looking, acting, and talking like a bunch of four year olds.

Thursday night’s Cub starter, Justin Germano, made that clear enough. “When you have circumstances like that, you can take it like that—for yourselves to know that we’re not going to let guys run over us,’’ he told the Chicago Sun-Times. ‘‘And if we’ve got to make them uncomfortable in the box, then that’s what we’ve got to do—not totally going after somebody but just trying to make them aware not to be uncomfortable.”

If we’ve got to make them uncomfortable?

These Cubs couldn’t make a Little League team uncomfortable. Germano was talking over his head for a guy who’d been slapped silly for six earned runs (seven overall) in four innings’ work including Suzuki’s blast and, in the fourth, Bryce Harper’s Flying Wallendas-like infield hit with first and second, which allowed Suzuki to score with Werth and Harper moving up further on Starlin Castro’s miscue and scoring—Harper included, on another round of fancy foot and headwork measuring the play and the throw in—off Ryan Zimmerman’s single.

And Germano’s going to sound the charge against guys running over these Cubs?

Clevenger’s major league career to date has been a small cup of coffee with the Cubs in 2011, good for one double and a run scored in five plate appearances, before a 2012 that shows, thus far, sixty games, a .276 on-base percentage, fielding percentages and range factors below the National League average for catchers, and a -0.8 wins above a replacement level player. In early August, with his playing time upped since Geovanny Soto was traded to Texas, the rook got himself tossed after bellowing, with swearing, at ump Jeff Nelson over a pitch call while batting against Cincinnati.

Yep, he’s the one to show the world the Cubs aren’t going to take the Nats’ chazerei lying down. Clevenger, the Chicago Sun-Times noted about the August toss, “is learning about major-league demeanor as much as hitting and working behind the plate.” Apparently, he’s a slow learner. Maybe if the commissioner’s office hands him, Castillo, and Cubs bench coach Jamie Quirk (about whom more anon) suspensions, he’ll get a little closer to his diploma.

So Werth took a big cut on 3-0 with the ducks on the pond in the fifth. Where I and just about every other baseball watcher comes from they call 3-0 a hitter’s count. Would the Cubs have been offended less if Werth had had the decency to wait until 3-1 before taking a cut?

Clevenger took time to switch mitts when a lace broke on his game piece. During that time, as he went to the Cubs’ dugout to find its replacement, Quirk  and a few possible other Cub pine-pony riders started barking toward the Nats, third base coach Bo Porter in particular. Porter didn’t exactly take kindly to the barking, but he strode almost calmly toward the Cub dugout’s railing, provoking both benches to empty for the first time, though nothing much more than that happened just yet.

It almost seems forgotten that Werth skied to right for the side after order was restored the first time. Certainly it wasn’t necessarily predestination that Harper should lead off the bottom of the sixth. He’d only had a huge hand in the Nats’ Wednesday night 9-1 thrashing, with a pair of bombs. Harper had also been 4-for-8 in the first three games, not to mention turning a double into a triple and a run scored plus an infield hit before he batted in the sixth Thursday.

Clevenger (51), practising scuffle diplomacy . . .

But by God Castillo and Clevenger were going to send the kid a little reminder of who the men were around here. Castillo threw the first pitch of the inning at Harper’s belt on the hip side. Harper bent out of the way like an architect’s compass. Clevenger moved not. a. muscle. as the pitch sailed past Harper and to the Nationals Park backstop. The two Cubs should only be grateful plate ump Jerry Layne—who helped Clevenger nudge Harper away from thoughts of having a mano-a-mano showdown with Castillo at the mound—didn’t throw them out of the game right then and there.

Only when Harper took a couple of steps forward to object to the no-questions-asked purpose pitch did Clevenger rise out of his crouch and step forward, looking to all the world like a peacemaker as he urged Harper back, followed by Werth and Ryan Zimmerman hustling quickly to the plate area to protect their “kid brother,” as pitcher Gio Gonzalez would call him.

You could understand the Cubs’ frustrations. The Nationals slapped them around like bowling pins in the set’s first three. Until Harper got bent the Nats had been on a feeding frenzy including and especially a whopping twelve home runs in the first three games and six on Wednesday night alone. Lots of players don’t hit twelve home runs in a season. Some don’t hit that many in a career.

What you couldn’t understand, of course, is why a kid pitcher who’s been walking six per nine innings thus far, with an ERA that looks like the average price of a compact disc album, and a kid catcher who isn’t exactly making that big an impression behind the dish or at the plate, are going to teach these rapacious Nats a lesson in manners by throwing at anyone. Never mind a Bryce Harper who’s one teenager that doesn’t know the meaning of throttling back when it comes to playing major league baseball.

“It’s really frustrating,” Clevenger drawled in the clubhouse. “They’ve been swinging the bat well all series, you can’t do nothing about that. You try to make some pitches in, and things like that happen.”

Johnson (right, with Michael Morse), managing to win . . .

If all it was was trying to make a pitch inside, Clevenger wouldn’t have sat like a catatonic as the pitch bent Harper and sailed to the backstop without so much as waving his mitt even to look like he was trying to spear it. If you’re going to throw at someone with plausible deniability, protecting your pitcher includes making it look, all the way, like a pitch that just got away. Wave at it. Lunge at it. Anything but sitting still. It betrays you every time.

Somewhere in the milling and mewing that followed immediately, Clevenger, who swears he was still trying to play peacemaker, managed to swing an open hand at a Nat—possibly Ian Desmond, who happened to stumble back and knock umpire Bill Miller down accidentally, Desmond helping Miller up post haste—before trying a shove against hulking Nat Michael Morse. A Cub relief pitcher, Manny Corpas, could be seen in one of the few open spaces in the melee jawing and pointing at a Nat or two. Clevenger, Corpas, and Nats relief corpsman Miguel Gonzalez were thrown out of the game.

Layne left no question who he thought was to blame for touching off the entire evenings’ rumble. He hung it on Quirk in the fifth, saying the bench coach’s “screaming obscenities” at Porter was the pouring of the powder into the keg.

“Here we are in the fifth inning,” Nats manager Davey Johnson said after the game. “We’re in a pennant race, we’re going to swing 3-0, we’re going to do everything. We ain’t stopping trying to score runs. Certainly a five-run lead at that time is nothing. I think it was the bench coach’s frustration in us handing it to them for a couple days. If they want to quit competing and forfeit, then fine. But we’re going to keep competing.”

Sveum, managing to survive . . .

“It’s probably one of the biggest butt-whuppings I’ve ever gotten in my career, as a coach or player,” said Cubs manager Dale Sveum, whose baby bears had just been thrashed in four straight and outscored by 22 runs while they were at it. I don’t remember getting manhandled that bad in any kind of series I’ve ever been a part of. Hopefully these young guys–the team that we’re trying to build–can look back on this and learn a lot from it and know exactly where you got to be as a team to get there.”

Johnson, managing to win. Sveum, managing to survive. You get the feeling the Cubs didn’t learn a thing Thursday night, other than if you can’t beat ’em, try to bean ’em or beat ’em up.

“It’s probably not going to help them avoid their first 100-loss season in [Cubs president of baseball operations] Theo Epstein’s lifetime,” writes the Sun-Times‘s Gordon Wittenmyer, “but the fight the Cubs showed in Thursday’s 70-man scuffle with the Washington Nationals was a significant step in the growing process for the young team, said some of the clubhouse elders.”

If that’s so, how come no less than Cub first baseman Anthony Rizzo all but said after the drubbing was done that there was no earthly or other reason to think about throwing at Harper?

“I don’t think he was over the top at all,” Rizzo told the Chicago Tribune of Harper’s immediate response after Castillo bent him in half. “Things escalated. Bryce, it wasn’t like he was running his mouth or saying anything. He plays this game the right way. He plays hard. He’s real exciting to watch. Playing against him, you have to contain him.”

If Rizzo said as much to his teammates after it was all over, he’d have established himself as a legitimate team leader right away. Because the Cubs showed the wrong kind of fight Thursday night, but the Nats showed the right kind all week long. Among other things, it’s the kind of fight that doesn’t send you home for the winter to watch the postseason on television while leaving behind the impression you’re nothing but a bunch of sore losers.

The Nats Play Baseball, the Cubs Play Basebrawl

All of a sudden the Chicago Cubs seem to have a new slogan: You play baseball, we’ll play basebrawl. Not that it’s going to stop the Washington Nationals from finishing what they started Thursday night, a 9-2 drubbing to complete a four-game sweep. But by cracky it’ll make us feel like men’s men to teach you a lesson, you miserable pudknockers!

Yep, that’s the way for a team who got outscored 31-9 over the four games in Washington to show the world who the men are in this game. Let that upstart Harper brat pick himself up, dust himself off, and roll all over us, will you? Let’s see how smart he looks when we knock him on his ass after we’re so far down in this game we wouldn’t be able to get back up with a rocket.

“Whaddya mean, get bent? Whaddya think he just did to me?!? And those ain’t clown questions, bro!”

That’ll teach the Nats to play like champions-to-be against the Cubs, who’ve now dropped seventeen of eighteen road games and built a six-game losing streak overall in the bargain. Who cares if the Nats are in a pennant race for real while the Cubs couldn’t out-race a millipede in a manual wheelchair? They want to pour it on when they’ve already got themselves a 7-2 lead? We’re not gonna take that lying down!

No, they were going to make sure Bryce Harper took one lying down, or close enough to it. Lendy Castillo, the Cubs’ righthanded relief pitcher, opened the bottom of the sixth with a fastball right at Harper’s belt. Castillo couldn’t even think about trying to argue that the ball got away from him. And at first Cub catcher Steve Clevenger looked like a first-class diplomat. When Harper, understandably enough, took a couple of steps toward the mound, Clevenger merely got around to his front and urged him back and away.

That’s when Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman hustled out toward Harper to make sure the lad didn’t get himself into any further hot water as the benches and bullpens poured out for the second time on the night. And that was where the entire field crowd might have dissipated after a little barking and no punching. Except that Gio Gonzalez, Wednesday night’s winning pitcher, felt a Cub paw on his shoulder, and heard another Cub barking at him, and the two dissipating sides poured back in.

This time, Clevenger surrendered his diplomatic corps credentials and gave a shove to the Nats’ Michael Morse. This is something along the line of Tom Thumb challenging Paul Bunyan to a boxing match. It’s also guaranteed to cause a scrum within the scrum, which is exactly what happened. All this while Harper, Werth, and Zimmermann did their best to stay on the peripheries. “You come into our house and try to mess with our kid brother,” Gonzalez told the Washington Post after the brawlgame, “that’s how we look at it. You’re not just going to come in and please as you do with that.”

Clevenger got the ho-heave. So did Nats relief pitcher Michael Gonzalez and Cubs reliever Manny Corpas, who was seen rather vividly on camera jawing, pointing, and for all anyone could tell threatening various mayhems to various Nats.

By the time any semblance of order could be restored, and Harper could continue his turn at bat, the only question remaining before the house was what the hell Castillo was still doing in the game. Maybe the warnings went to both sides after he bent Harper, but even the blind could have seen he left no room to wiggle into a claim that the ball got away from him somehow.

As things turned out, Harper finally struck out, but Zimmerman chased Castillo with a base hit. Jeff Beliveau came in to relieve and found no further relief when Adam LaRoche hit his first service into the right field seats.

Just a night earlier, after getting thumped 9-1, with Harper himself leading the mayhem with two bombs and the Nationals just about running out of bleachers into which to deposit their launches, Cubs manager Dale Sveum—who’d been thrown out in the third for arguing balls and strikes—seemed to know the score well enough. “It’s just men playing against boys right now,” he mourned.

That was Wednesday, this was Thursday, and the tensions probably started in earnest in the fifth, after the Nats an inning earlier poured it on further with three more runs. Now, up 7-2 with the bases loaded and two out, Werth took a big cut on 3-0. Too big so far as Cubs bench coach Jamie Quirk seemed to be concerned. He started jawing from his dugout at Nats third base coach Bo Porter, who could be forgiven for not taking kindly to Quirk telling him something along the line, perhaps, of how nice it isn’t to keep playing guns blazing when you’re already burying the opposition.

Yep—it’s just men playing against boys right now . . .

Porter may have left the Nats’s broadcast team aghast when he strode over to the rail of the Cubs’ dugout. But Quirk was the one ejected. And, the instigator. Says whom? Says Thursday night’s home plate ump, Jerry Layne, leaving no doubt. “The fracas was started because all that stuff that happened that was instigated by Quirk screaming out at Porter. And the obscenities that he screamed out, I just felt was inappropriate and that’s what caused everything,” the husky ump told reporters.

Inappropriate? If the ducks hadn’t been on the pond at the time, who’s to say with the mood of the Cubs that Werth wouldn’t have gotten one thrown toward his own gut.

Harper had already returned under the Cubs’ skins as early as the first inning, when he whacked and ran out a nifty triple, diving head first into third just to be sure, then scored on another dive while Zimmerman was grounding out. In the bottom of the fourth the lad got even friskier, beating out an infield hit with Kurt Suzuki and Werth on ahead of him, Suzuki scoring, Werth to third and Harper to second on Starlin Castro’s muff, before Werth and Harper came home on Zimmerman’s single.

Werth was in position to swing 3-0 with ducks on the pond in the fifth after Ian Desmond—who’d be knocked into umpire Bill Miller during the sixth-inning soiree after Clevenger took an open-hand swing at him—drew a one-out walk off Castillo and stole second. Danny Espinosa singled him over to third, then stole second himself after a second out, before Zimmerman drew a full-count walk to load them up. That Werth skied to right for the side almost went forgotten while Quirk launched his screed to Porter and both sides launched out of the dugouts and the pens.

Davey Johnson, a manager to whom the word “quit” is an obscenity, illustrated precisely why the Nats are where they are and the Cubs are where they aren’t. “Here we are in the fifth inning,” he said to reporters after the game. “We’re in a pennant race, we’re going to swing 3-0, we’re going to do everything. We ain’t stopping trying to score runs. Certainly, a five-run lead at that time is nothing. I think it was the bench coach’s frustration in us handing it to them for a couple days. If they want to quit competing and forfeit, then fine. But we’re going to keep competing.”

Handing it to them for a couple of days? By the time the Nats finally got through with them, the Cubs were probably calling in search and rescue teams to help them recover their heads.

They weren’t anywhere to be seen in Nationals Park all week long. These Cubs didn’t even pretend to keep competing. They got steamrolled. And there was no way they were going to leave town before letting the Nats know who the men around here were.

Not these Cubs. Why, their rebuilding effort is only going to go to its one hundred and fifth year. Big deal.

Yes, children—minus Strasburg, this Nats rotation DOES have good postseason chances

Let’s try this again.

Assume the Washington Nationals will stick to the script and implement, some time in September, the exclamation point of the Strasburg Plan. Period dot period. Assume, too, that there’ll be enough blue murder screaming over the Nats torpedoing their own postseason chances. Maybe even some conspiracy theorists demanding a formal investigation, perhaps into whether someone isn’t buying the Nats off bigtime to tank. (Would the conspiracy theorists surprise you, really?)

Now, shove all that to one side and look at the Nats’ rotation without Stephen Strasburg.

Zimmermann—Without the Stras, he won’t be leading a rotation of pushovers . . .

Jordan Zimmermann—At this writing, Jordan Zimmermann leads the team with a 2.63 earned run average. If wins and losses are still your thing exclusively, dismiss him if you must as barely above a .500 pitcher, since he’s 9-8 through right now. Want to know how many no-decisions Zimmermann has on his jacket through today? Nine. If you define pitching well enough to win as surrendering three runs or fewer, he pitched seven of those nine games well enough to win, and in five of those seven the Nats did go on to win. So if you still look at wins and losses first and last, Zimmermann should have a 15-8 won-lost record through today.

What do you know. That would give him as many wins as Strasburg has and a mere two losses more. But Zimmermann’s quality stats include a 1.13 walks/hits per inning pitched rate (team lead), a 3.72 strikeout-to-walk ratio (second only to Strasburg’s 4.23), a 1.8 walks per nine rate, and a 0.8 home run rate. He also has 2.9 wins above a replacement level pitcher. I’m not exactly convinced the Nats would be in terrible postseason shape with Zimmermann at the top of the rotation.

Gio Gonzalez—He’d probably win the Cy Young Award if it were going to the most congenially quotable pitcher in the league. He has the second best winning percentage (.696) to Strasburg (.714) as of today. He’s also third among the rotation in ERA—with a nifty 3.28. He only has three no-decisions, and in only one did he pitch well enough to win, according to the above definition. So, instead of his current 16-7 won-lost record, he’d be 17-7, since the Nats went on to win that one game. If you want to cut him a break and say four earned runs or less is good enough to win, Gonzalez could—since the Nats went on to win all three of his no-decisions thus far—have a 19-7 record.

He’s got a 1.16 WHIP through today; he has a 2.80 K/BB rate, he has a 9.5 K/9 rate, and he has a 0.5 home run rate, if that matters to you. He also has 1.6 WAR. In a Strasburg-less postseason rotation, I don’t think you’d be in grave danger with Gonzalez as your number two man.

Edwin Jackson—Start and end with wins and losses and you’d start worrying here. After all, Jackson only has an 8-9 record despite his 3.53 ERA. He also has eight no-decisions, one fewer than Zimmermann. And, by the aforesaid measurement of pitching well enough to win, in six of those games Jackson did pitch well enough to win. The Nats only went on to win one of those games, alas, which would make Jackson a 9-9, but since four of them ended up as one-run games, and you’d like to think a pitcher working well enough to win or better than well enough should have come away with a pitching win. By that, Jackson should be 12-9.

His quality stats are solid for a number three man. He has a 1.17 WHIP and a 2.85 K/BB rate; he has a 1.1 home run per nine rate and a 2.8 BB/9 rate. Look at a Strasburg-less Nats rotation and, so far, you can’t really think of one good reason why this rotation can’t succeed come postseason time. Among Zimmermann, Gonzalez, and Jackson, they average to a 1.15 WHIP rate. Folks, that’s 1965 Los Angeles Dodgers, 1969 New York Mets, or 1971 Baltimore Orioles territory.

Ross Detwiler—The sleeper of the bunch. He’s 8-6 with a better than respectable 3.52 ERA. He has a pile of no-decisions in his own right as a starter (he’s also seen some very effective bullpen duty)—seven, to be exact. Of those seven, he pitched well enough to win six of them, and the Nats went on to win four of those. By that, Detwiler should have a 12-6 won-lost record.

Detwiler’s quality stats are just about even with Jackson’s. He has a 1.17 WHIP and a 2.31 K/BB rate; he has a 2.4 BB/9 rate and a 0.6 HR/9 rate. As a number four man in a Strasburg-less postseason rotation, it doesn’t exactly look as though Detwiler’s the weak link. It doesn’t even look as though the Nat rotation without Strasburg is a weak link.

The entire Nats pitching staff through this writing is worth 17.4 WAR. With Strasburg, the rotation is good for 13.5; without him, they lose a mere 2.6. Believe it or not, Zimmerman leads the rotation with his 4.0. Are you trying to tell me a rotation configured to equal 10.9 WAR would go into a postseason with a gaping handicap?

Of course there’s no way the Nats are where they are without Strasburg. Assuming they hold those levels the rest of the stretch, nobody else going to the postseason in the National League should assume the Nats rotation minus Strasburg would be pushovers. Whoops! you say—whaddabout postseason experience? Gotcha! There’s Edwin Jackson, and there’s all the rest, and shouldn’t the Nats bring every damn last weapon to bear they can bring including Strasburg?

Well, now. Let’s take a look at a few rotations that went into a postseason with little to no such experience to carry into it and see what they did:

A tale of two Hall of Famers—little did Kid Palmer know . . .

1966 Baltimore Orioles—The only pitcher on the entire staff with postseason experience was reliever Stu Miller (1962 San Francisco Giants). Who also led the team in ERA. Except for oft-injured lefthander Steve Barber, the Oriole starters were kids: Jim Palmer was all of 20, Wally Bunker 21, Dave McNally 23, and John Miller 25. You’d have given a staff like that three chances in a World Series against the last of the great Dodger teams of the middle 1960s. Those Dodgers still brandished Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, plus Claude Osteen as the number three rotation man and Phil (The Vulture) Regan having his career year out of the bullpen. The Orioles swept the Dodgers in four straight, though they did get a little help from Willie Davis’s fatal inning in a Game Two in which Koufax otherwise looked like his usual self until then. Maybe they had some incentive not to get another turn against Koufax, but whatever works, works.

Koosman, doing what even a Hall of Famer couldn’t, beating the Orioles twice in the ’69 Miracle . . .

1969 New York Mets—Not a damn one of them, not even veteran Don Cardwell, had postseason experience to speak of entering that postseason. The Mets had one bona-fide Hall of Famer in the rotation (Tom Seaver) and one bona-fide Hall of Famer (Nolan Ryan) as a spot starter and relief option, and about the only postseason experience either had was watching on the tube or in the stands. The Mets steamrolled the Atlanta Braves to win the first National League Championship Series, then won four straight—with Jerry Koosman, not Seaver, winning twice—after losing Game One of the World Series to a Baltimore Orioles team that, on paper, was supposed to make three squares a day out of those Mets.

1970 Cincinnati Reds—The first of the teams to be known as the Big Red Machine had one pitcher (Jim Merritt, a 20-game winner) who’d been to a World Series in 1965 (with the Minnesota Twins) but pitched only 3.1 innings in two relief appearances. Not exactly a well-seasoned veteran of the wars. After burying the Pittsburgh Pirates in three straight in the NLCS, they went down in five to the Orioles in the Serious.

1971 Oakland Athletics—These A’s featured a rotation topped by Vida Blue (having his career year) and Catfish Hunter (future Hall of Famer) and nobody with postseason experience. They got overwhelmed by the Orioles and their four 20-game winners in the League Championship Series, alas. Call it a dress rehearsal for what was to come—namely, three straight World Series rings.

1979 Pittsburgh Pirates—The Fam-I-Lee had one starter, Bert Blyleven, with any postseason experience, and that was a mere two-inning relief gig with the 1970 Twins whom the Orioles blew away in three straight. It may have been one of the classic full-team efforts—no Pirate pitcher was all that dominant in the World Series, other than Blyleven and closer Kent Tekulve—but the Pirates did win it in a seven-game thriller.

“One Tough Dominican . . .”

1982 St. Louis Cardinals—None of this rotation had postseason experience going in, and they didn’t exactly go in looking like a particularly threatening rotation. (Their best starter: Joaquin Andujar, whose 1.09 WHIP was the only one on the staff below 1.25.) The only pitcher on the whole staff with postseason experience was Jim Kaat, by then working as a relief pitcher who only started two on the season. The Cardinals ground out a seven-game Series win over the Brewers, but you couldn’t really say that either team threw a deadly rotation up there. (The Brewers, in fairness, had a rotation slightly worse than the Cardinals’ and two pitchers—Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers and Don Sutton—on staff, but Sutton was a mid-to-late season pickup and Fingers, of course, was the closer.)

1986 New York Mets—They had no 20-game winners, three starters with ERAs under 3, and nobody with postseason experience. After they steamrolled the National League in the regular season, they had to win the pennant the hard way against a feisty collection of Houston Astros, then win the World Series the hard way against a star-crossed collection of Boston Red Sox. If you looked at the rotation’s WHIP overall, it compares pretty favourably to that of this year’s Nats thus far.

1990 Cincinnati Reds—The stars of this show, arguably, were the Nasty Boys bullpen, among whom only Randy Myers (1988 Mets) had any postseason experience. In the rotation, only Danny Jackson (1985 Kansas City Royals) had been there, done that; in the non-Nasty bullpen contingent, only veteran Rick Mahler (who had sixteen spot starts during the season) had gone to any postseason, and there he’d pitched less than two innings for the 1982 Atlanta Braves. These Reds ended up stunning the A’s with a Series sweep after needing six to beat the Pirates for the pennant.

Young, loud, and snotty . . .

2003 Florida Marlins—No postseason experience ever among the rotation, including young, loud, and snotty (You lost! Go home!) Josh Beckett. Beat the Yankees in six in the World Series, after shoving the Giants out of the way in the division series but winning an arduous League Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs.

2007 Colorado Rockies—Had six starters on the year, none of whom took postseason experience into these rounds. These Rockies swept the Philadelphia Phillies out of the division series and the Arizona Diamondbacks out of the League Championship Series—only to be swept out of the World Series, in turn, by the Red Sox.

2008 Tampa Bay Rays—No rotation postseason experience. Not quite as good as this year’s Nats with or without Strasburg. And they got rolled in five by the Phillies in the World Series, after taking the Chicago White Sox in four in the division series and wrestling to a seven-game LCS win over the Red Sox.

Lincecum—no experience necessary . . .

2010 San Francisco Giants—They made themselves into a no-experience-whatsoever postseason rotation. The only member of the 2010 Giants with any postseason experience of which to speak was Barry Zito (when he was with the early-2000s A’s)—and he’d pitched so horrifically in 2010 the Giants didn’t dare include him on the postseason roster. This took the Giants to a World Series against a Texas Rangers staff that had two postseason-experienced starters. (Cliff Lee and Rich Harden.) The “inexperienced” Giants rode that pitching and some very timely and half unexpected hitting to a five-game Series conquest.

Covering twelve teams since 1966 who took little-to-no postseason-tested pitching into any postseason, it shakes out like this: eight of those rotations proved World Series winners. One of those rotations, moreover, beat a rotation loaded with two much-experienced Hall of Famers including maybe the greatest peak-value lefthanded pitcher of the post-World War II era at least and possibly all-time at most.

An 8-4 World Series-winning record among the inexperienced over a 46-year span isn’t exactly a great reason to be alarmed that the “inexperienced” Washington Nationals rotation—with or without Stephen Strasburg—is going to be guaranteed dead meat going into this year’s postseason. If the Nats stick to the Strasburg Plan on behalf of keeping their man’s arm from breaking off long-range, it is not going to kill them going in if they go without him.

That doesn’t guarantee the Nats’ survival, of course. But it does suggest that the alarmists bleating about whether they’re shooting themselves in the feet or “cheating” their fans out of the best possible chances to win are bleating through their derrieres.

Endangered Species: The Arms That Lost the Races

While we’re on the subject of the Strasburg Plan, it might be wise to hark back to past young guns whose careers—or, more accurately, the lack thereof, for most—may or may not have factored into the Washington Nationals’ thinking. (Manager Davey Johnson, who’s absolutely on board with the Strasburg Plan, happens to know about at least one of those guns directly.) They didn’t all have fractured comebacks from Tommy John surgery (though a few of them could have used it, if the procedure had been around), but they did have work use or other physical  issues in one or another way that turned them from brilliant or burgeoning youth to gone, or at least nothing near what they first seemed they’d be, before they should have been in prime.

Shutdown time looms for Strasburg . . .

The complete list may be longer than I’m presenting here. But what follows is a roll of pitchers I can recall who started young enough, fast enough, or at least furious enough, and with baseball just about at their mercy, or close enough to it. I’ve written about a few of these cases before, perhaps recently, but it’s hard not to think about them with Strasburg’s pre-planned closure on the horizon. The Nats are being smart to do it; they planned it from the season’s outset. If they’ve been bitten in the rear at all by it, it’s because, well, almost everyone figured the Nats would have a respectable 2012 but almost nobody figured they’d own the National League East and steam toward the postseason.

These pitchers should prove a powerful lesson even now. But to teams without the thinking depth the Nats have shown, they probably won’t. For every Stephen Strasburg who’s being handled wisely following major elbow trouble and reconstructive surgery, there have been, and there will always be, dozens more who won’t be handled that way—whether it’s by playing when ailing (hello, Johan Santana), pitching an unconscionable workload even by the standards of the ancients, an unexpected injury that fouls up just about everything else, a little too much of the spotlight causing a little too much more disorientation, or other troubles.

Rex Barney—Teen phenom with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Harnessed his impossible-to-see fastball by 1948 and won fifteen; had a no-hitter on his resume. End of season: leg fracture in two places sliding into base. Following season: 48 walks in 33 innings, pitching, as one sportswriter phrased it, as though the plate were high and outside. Gone at 25.

Ewell, the whipped . . .

Ewell (The Whip) Blackwell—Six-time All-Star for the postwar Cincinnati Reds. Snapping sidearm motion on a 6’6″ pitcher earned Blackwell his nickname and an image, as one writer put it, of “a man falling out of a tree.” Age 24: Led the National League in wins, strikeouts, complete games, strikeouts, and strikeout-to-walk ratio, and almost equaled Johnny Vander Meer’s double no-hit feat. By age 28: Arm trouble, plus kidney removal and appendectomy. By age 30: A spare part on a couple of Yankee pennant winners and, other than an abbreviated comeback with the Kansas City Athletics in 1955, gone at age 32, a shadow of what once terrorised hitters.

Joe Black—1952, as a 28-year-old rookie: Rookie of the Year, finished a league-leading 41 games, first black pitcher to win a World Series. Next season: Told he needed more stuff, including a curve ball his finger tendons made impossible to throw, Black was a wreck. Never won or saved more than six again; done at 33.

Karl Spooner—Turned a 1954 cup of coffee into three squares at 23: back-to-back shutouts toward season’s end, in the first of which he struck out fifteen, for a rookie record that stood until J.R. Richard smashed it. Struck out 27 over the two games. Spring training 1955: Came into a game without a proper warmup and blew his arm out. Struggled through the season, never appeared in the majors again following Game One of the 1955 World Series. “Sooner with Spooner,” the saying Dodger fans came up with over his stupefying 1954 debut, took on a sinister meaning after that.

Herb Score—At 22: Rode bullet fastball to Rookie of the Year honours, 245 strikeouts, and a 9.7 strikeouts-per-nine rate, leading the league. At 23: 20 wins, five shutouts, 268 strikeouts, another league-leading strikeouts-per-nine rate (9.5). At 24: Hit in the face by Gil McDougald’s liner in his fifth start; gone for the year. At 25: Ruptured a tendon in his pitching elbow on a rainy afternoon (he surely could have used Tommy John surgery, had it been invented at the time), tried to adjust his mechanics to compensate, and was never again the pitcher he looked to have been after missing almost two full seasons. By age 29 and a number of faltering comebacks: Finished on the mound, headed for a second career in the broadcast booth.

Steve Dalkowski—Minor league phenom whose heater may have made Score’s seem like a changeup. (What the hey, Ted Williams himself said he couldn’t see it.) Finally harnessed it enough to make the Orioles in 1963 spring training, at age 24 . . . and blew his elbow out pitching to Yankee rookie Phil Linz. Bounced back to the minors; drank himself out of baseball by age 26. Would the Orioles have won their first World Series sooner with a healthy Dalkowski?

Jim Bouton—Age 23: Yankee comer with a hard fastball delivered just as hard. Age 24: Yankee 21-game winner. Age 25: Improving strikeout-to-walk ratio and WHIP while winning 18 for the last of the old-guard Yankee pennant winners. Age 26: Shoulder and arm miseries begin, never again an effective starter. By age 31: Marginal relief pitcher and gone, mostly because he’s lost whatever was left, though the controversy around Ball Four didn’t help. Brief, memorable comeback with the 1978 Atlanta Braves, including a pitcher’s duel with J.R. Richard in which neither got the decision.

Jim Lonborg—At 25, put it together following his first two warmup seasons with a Cy Young award, the league leadership in wins, starts, and strikeouts. 1967 World Series: Wheeled out on two days’ rest for Game Seven and couldn’t hold his own. Offseason: Knee injury in a skiing accident. Next season: Late start, disoriented mechanics, never again anywhere near the pitcher he was in 1967 despite forging a long enough career. Reversed Casey Stengel’s professional path and became a dentist after his baseball career.

McLain—too many innings and too many controversies equal finished at 28 . . .

Denny McLain—Twenty-game winner at 22. Thirty-one-game winner at 24; 24-game winner at 25. Next season: Suspended over gun carrying. Following season: Arm still wrung by too many innings pitched (he averaged 290 innings pitched over the span; pitched over 320 innings in each of 1968 and 1969) and maybe too many complete games (he pitched 51 of them in 1968-69), he lost 22 for the 1970 Senators and had no arm left by age 28. That proved to be the least of his problems as life went on, alas.

Mark (The Bird) Fidrych—At 21: Rookie of the Year with 19 wins, a small truckload of strikeouts, and an unlimited future. The following spring: dinged his knee, came back too soon, shredded his shoulder, and then made the first of numerous premature comebacks from the shoulder miseries. Finished at age 29. Learned only around his finish that he’d had a frayed rotator cuff made worse by all those undiagnosed comebacks. Went back home, farmed and worked on heavy equipment, died in a freak accident.

Randy Jones—After a frightful (22-game losing) start at age 24, went back-to-back 20-game winning at 25-26, including a Cy Young Award. Slop-tossing righthander. He also threw 600 innnings in those two (1975-76) seasons. 1977: His arm committed suicide; he’d hang in until he was 32 but never had a winning season after 27.

John Candelaria—At 23, he was a 6’7″ hulk leading the majors in earned run average and winning 20 in the bargain. Would have only one 15-win season over the next sixteen in which he managed to hang on. What got the Candy Man? The usual verdict was (and may remain) too much fame.

The Candy Man—sweet to sour too soon . . .

Frank Tanana—From ages 20-24, Nolan Ryan’s rotation second. Led the league in ERA and shutouts at 23. Age 25: Arm and shoulder trouble turned his near-Express-like heat into a candle. Forged a journeyman career as a junkballer and finished a .500 pitcher, though his array of offspeed stuff earned him the nickname the Great Tantaliser—a long way from being known as the Top Tanana.

Wayne Garland—At 25, emerged as a 20-game winner with an ERA under 2.70, and landed himself one of the early yummy multi-year free agency contracts. The following spring training: Hellbent on living up to that then-monster deal, Garland blew his rotator cuff, tried pitching through it anyway, and led the league in losses with 19. Hung in for half of the ten-year deal, eventually earned a friendly reputation for pitching with guts, but he stands as the classic example of what pushing too hard can do to the unsuspecting.

Mike Flanagan—Cy Young winner at 27. Didn’t know his own limits; pitched an astouding 157 straight turns, never missing a start, while hurt. Never won as many as 17 the rest of his career; won 15 or 16 only twice more. Eventually joined the Oriole front office; committed suicide in 2011.

J.R. Richard—Took his time to become the National League’s mound terror, and he was still only 29 after he broke the National League record for strikeouts by a righthander. Age 30: Stroke, career dead. Hit rock bottom before going into the ministry.

Steve Stone—Took the steady ride to the top and bagged the 1980 Cy Young Award. The following season, he was gone after fifteen games, at 32. The verdict: His curve ball destroyed him—he threw it too often for his own good and took it to fever pitch in 1980. Became a broadcaster.

Mike Norris—What the curve ball was to Stone, the screwball—plus 24 complete games in his 22-game winning season at age 25, not to mention that he may have been a screwball—proved to Norris. They still debate which went south first and faster, Norris’s arm or his off-field life.

Steve McCatty—Wins and ERA champ done in by too many complete games. Don’t think for one moment that his experience on that ill-fated Oakland rotation of 1981-83 hasn’t had a factor in formulating the Strasburg Plan even if he didn’t have Tommy John surgery: McCatty these days is the Nats’ pitching coach.

Vukovich—guts, glory, gone: Pitching hurt does nobody any favours even if you’re helping to win a pennant.

Pete Vukovich—Another steady rider to the top. Landed a Cy Young award in 1982, at 29 . . . and, after winning nothing to open 1983, missed the rest of that season and all 1984. Pitched hurt helping the Brewers win the 1982 pennant; gone at 33.

LaMarr Hoyt—Back-to-back wins champion at ages 27-28, including a Cy Young Award. At 29: 18-game loser, future drug rehab patient, finished at 31.

Rick Sutcliffe—ERA champ at 26; 20-game winner (including a 16-1 mark in the National League after his trade to the Cubs, leading them to their first postseason since 1946) and Cy Young pitcher at 28. At 29-30: Injuries, 11-22 span thanks to premature comebacks. Occasional flashes of his old self the rest of the way . . . very occasional. He, too, moved to the broadcast booth in due course.

Dwight Gooden—From 19-21 they talked about when, not if he’d make the Hall of Fame having obliterated half the pitching records in the book. Warning sign: the 1986 Mets began throwing salves of doubt into the quietly confident kid, telling him, essentially, he couldn’t live on just that exploding fastball and voluptuous curve ball. Forget the drug issues, Gooden by 25 would be damaged once and for all by shoulder issues. The miracle is that he managed to make a sixteen-year career with a .634 winning percentage, but they’ll never stop calling him the greatest might-have-been of them all, unless the Nats are fool enough to ditch the Strasburg Plan, maybe. (Gooden’s first major league manager: Davey Johnson.) His post-baseball life hasn’t been simple, either.

Boddicker—wasn’t built for his workload or his money pitch . . .

Mike Boddicker—Age 26, after a few cups of coffee and a promising 1983: Led the American League in wins and ERA. The next and last nine seasons of his career: Won more than 15 only once; never again got his ERA under 3.00; never again enjoyed a WHIP under 1.20. Those in the know believed Boddicker was done in by too many innings and too many curve balls, neither of which his body could really withstand.

Generation K—The once-vaunted trio of Met young guns. Isringhausen, Wilson, Pulsipher. Arm and shoulder trouble practically out of the chute. Only Isringhausen would make anything like a long, never mind respectable career, and that when he converted to relief pitching. Which he still does, now for the Los Angeles Angels.

Steve Avery—Want one reason why Scott Boras isn’t in any big hurry to push his client Strasburg to infinity and beyond just yet? He’s been there, done that: Avery at 21 went 18-8 and finished sixth in the Cy Young voting helping the worst-to-first Atlanta pennant winners. By 23: 50-36 record, ERA around 3.20, excellent postseason jacket. At 24: Popped an armpit muscle, never again the same.

Kerry Wood—At 21: A 20-K game and a Rookie of the Year award. At 22: Sitting out a season following Tommy John surgery. By 26: Don’t go by the innings pitched, he was piling up crazy pitch counts as often as not and ended up developing triceps and rotator cuff trouble, among other maladies. He’d make fourteen trips to the disabled list and convert to relief pitching before he finally called it a career this year.

Mark Prior—At 21: mid-season phenom. At 22: 18-game winner, All-Star, third-place Cy Young finisher. At 23: Achilles tendon injury just the first of enough health troubles including two shoulder surgeries that Prior hasn’t thrown a major league pitch since 2005. Latest comeback attempt in the Red Sox organisation ended with his release last week. What got him? Possibly the same thing that helped get Wood—too many 120+ pitch count games too young—plus his pitching mechanics, which may have put excess strain on his shoulders before anyone caught on.

Going for the guts and glory is one thing. Going there at the expense of a solid long-term baseball life is something else. Maybe nobody expected the Nats to be roaring toward the postseason this soon after building a powerful enough young team, of whom Strasburg is merely the most significant (and most popular?) element, but maybe they’re teaching baseball a huge lesson about sustained future success over immediate gratification. Immediate gratification might get you a World Series ring at most, but ignoring sustained future success might mean that one ring and damaged goods otherwise is all you get with your current array.

The Nats have a deep enough and strong enough team if you remove Strasburg from the equation. Would you like to see what they could become, in postseasons to come, with him? Then let them stay with the plan. Unless you really want Strasburg on a roll featuring not a few pennant-winners over a long, distinguished career but, rather, a roll featuring the sad like of Barney, Blackwell, Black, Spooner, Score, Dalkowski, Bouton, Lonborg, McLain, Fidrych, Jones, Candelaria, Tanana, Garland, Flanagan, Richard, Stone, Norris, Vukovich, Hoyt, Sutcliffe, Gooden, Boddicker, Pulsipher, Wilson, Avery, Wood, Prior, and the walrus-looking gentleman who’s now Strasburg’s and the Nats’ pitching coach.

And if you do, ask what favours going for the guts and glory really did those once-formidable arms and their owners.

Stay the Course with the Strasburg Plan

“It’s funny,” Stephen Strasburg told reporters Tuesday night, after he waxed the Atlanta Braves with six one-run innings, not even letting a rain delay affect him. “Nobody talks to me personally about it. Obviously, I can either scour the Internet or watch all the stuff being said on TV or I can just keep pitching and watch the Golf Channel, I guess.”

If Strasburg did any Internet scouting over last weekend, he might have seen the innings limit—the talk of which has dominated just about everything when it comes to the National League East and, really, most everywhere else in the Show—has now achieved what some might think the ultimate affirmation.

A writer for Rant Sports, Michael Collins, suggests the pending Strasburg Shutdown is really a well-constructed smokescreen the aim of which is to lull the competition asleep and then, bing! wheel out Strasburg once the postseason, into which the Washington Nationals seem to have a locked-down berth, practically, opens. And Mr. Collins all but blames the conspiracy on, what do you know, Strasburg’s agent.

Strasburg’s agent is the venomous Scott Boras, and it wouldn’t be beyond the scope of possibility that Boras, Rizzo, and all other parties involved have hatched a little scheme to catch other clubs asleep at the wheel.

Boras has made passive aggressive legal threats in public regarding the Strasburg situation, saying that there could be “legal ramifications” if the Nationals don’t follow the advice of physicians and shut him down.  But has anyone really seen a doctor’s note, or heard directly from any qualified physicians who have examined Strasburg and recommended this action?  There’s just a lot of fluff being thrown around the whole situation.

Strasburg—The Plan proceeds, and not without controversy still . . .

You want a doctor’s note? How about commentary from the surgeon who performed Strasburg’s Tommy John surgery? The Nats came up with the Strasburg Plan based on the counsel of Lewis Yocum. “It is Yocum’s belief,” wrote Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post, who has been absolutely on board with the Plan from the outset, “that pitchers who break down from premature returns from elbow surgery—sometimes ruining their shoulders, and their whole careers, rather than their new elbows—don’t usually do so during the first big stress year but rather the following season. That would be 2013 in Strasburg’s case.”

If you believe Tyler Kepner of the New York Times, Boras isn’t exactly talking like a man looking to snooker the competition on the field. He’ll play the hardest game of hardball at the negotiating table when it comes to his players’ paydays, but ponder what he tells Kepner regarding the Nats’ following—read carefully, Mr. Collins, wherever you are—doctors’ recommendations, if not doctors’ orders.

“A lot of people have come to me,” Boras says, “and said, ‘What about the fans?’ You’ve got to remember, the fans of Washington are benefiting from this program. The Nationals wouldn’t be where they are without [Jordan] Zimmermann being part of that staff. Zimmerman followed the same protocol, and that’s why he’s about to pitch 200 innings and pitch in postseason games—because he’s healthy.”

Collins seems blissfully enough unaware that Zimmermann (who isn’t a Boras client) underwent Tommy John a year before Strasburg did and, while Strasburg sat it out for 2011 after having his procedure, Zimmermann worked 161.1 innings and was shut down 28 August. It was the heaviest workload Zimmermann had had to that point, too.

Oho, you can hear Collins fuming to himself, but where did the Nats end up last year? Is he aware that, this year, unless there’s a Boston-type breakdown due in September that we’re not aware of, the Nats have run roughshod enough over the NL East in very considerable part because Zimmermann is working with, at this writing, the second-lowest earned run average in the league? Is Collins willing to argue that the Nats finished third last year because they shut Zimmermann down when they did?

Nobody else is, so far as I know.

And nobody else seems quite so ignorant of the point that, thus far, the Nats’ three-way brain trust—owner Ted Lerner, general manager Mike Rizzo, manager Davey Johnson—takes doctors’ recommendations/orders seriously.

Rizzo has been the point man on the Strasburg Plan, of course, and he’s never been silent about his thinking regarding this. In the proverbial nutshell, the easiest thing on earth would have been to push for the Promised Land like now. (Want to know the last time a Washington team won a World Series? How does a month before Americans elected Calvin Coolidge to the White House in his own right strike you?) The harder but more prudent thing on earth would be exactly what Rizzo has said: taking the future of this pitcher and this team into full account.

“One reason the Nats have come so far, and so fast,” Boswell wrote almost a fortnight ago, “is the same reason they will shut down Strasburg when Rizzo decides the day. The Nats do things their way—or, rather, Rizzo, Johnson and Lerner’s way. They act in line with their best baseball, medical and philosophical judgment. Then, they don’t care what anybody thinks—as they’ve proved time and again in recent years, though few notice.”

It didn’t begin with the Strasburg Plan. It sure as hell didn’t begin with last season, when then-manager Jim Riggleman tried a holdup for a contract extension and Rizzo held the door for him as he quit ignominiously. And it didn’t end with Rizzo bucking every last urging from the conventional wisdom and, ignoring then-free agent Mark Buehrle or failing to deal for Zack Greinke, sending the Oakland Athletics four prospects for Gio Gonzalez. Whose 16-6/1.16 WHIP/3.23 ERA/9.5 K-9 is a neat parallel and companion to Strasburg and Zimmermann. And, whose personality has apparently turned the Nats’ rotation as lively off the mound as on it.

Gonzalez is also one of the Nats’ best interviews. Not to mention one of the wisest, as he showed talking to a Washington radio host earlier this month:

“I think that we want what’s best for Stras . . . “

I don’t really try to sit in the office and [say] ‘Hey, Rizz. What are you doing?’ I think he knows what he’s doing and I think that we want the best for Stras. And if that’s the situation, we’re more than happy to back him up. He’s an unbelievable pitcher and he’s been lights out for us all year. He’s key for us so far.

“But at the same time, we want him to be healthy and strong. We don’t want him to be damaged in any shape or form. I feel like we have a great team behind us, great rotation. Guys that can still pick him up whenever they need them. Our bullpen to me is gonna be our key. As long as they’re healthy and strong, they’re gonna definitely clean up a lot of our mess.

The Nats aren’t flying blind here. They know damn well that Strasburg is one of their biggest weapons against teams .500 or better. In fact, after he got through with the Braves Tuesday night he stood at a nifty 7-1 against those teams. Gonzalez is 6-3, but Zimmermann is 2-4. Edwin Jackson is 4-2 but Ross Detwiler is 2-4. But they have a bullpen more than capable of picking up and kicking aside any dicey openings.

But they also know damn well that their chances for going all the way to the World Series, never mind winning it, decrease without Strasburg. And if they’re OK with it, and Nats fans seem more and more to be OK with it, what’s the big deal?

Believe it or not, Tommy John himself thinks it is. The man upon whom the procedure bearing his name was first performed thinks the Nats should just turn Strasburg loose. Why? Because John himself pitched over 200 innings the year after he had the procedure. What he didn’t say was that he’d pitched 1930+ innings before he underwent it. Strasburg pitched a mere 68 innings before his procedure; Zimmermann, 91.1.

“Should we follow the expert medical opinion of a licensed surgeon who performed Tommy John surgery,” Boras asks, “or of the patient who was asleep?”

“Should we follow the expert medical opinion of a licensed surgeon who performed Tommy John surgery, or of the patient who was asleep?”

The Nats also know they’re not the pitching-only club they were reputed to be when the season began. Since the All-Star break, they’ve scored the most runs in the National League. They’ve found ways to win that would have been unthinkable for earlier Washington franchises. Their defence has been showing itself as somewhere between acrobatic and brilliantly timed.

But they also know what those yammering to chuck the Plan and let the kid pitch don’t know. Never mind that Washington hasn’t seen a postseason since Franklin Roosevelt’s first year in office, these Nats weren’t built to win like yesterday, never mind now.

“We know what’s right for us,” Rizzo insisted as early as the Fourth of July. “And we have the guts to stick with it. We’re an organization that prides itself on proper development of players. That’s what we explain to every parent about their son and every agent about a player. What’s changed? What’s different than it was with Zimmermann? Oh, a Washington team is in the race. I guess people are shocked. We’re building a team that we think will be good for a lot longer than one season.”

It beats the living hell out of some near-future prospects getting the idea, based on dumping the Plan and possibly watching Strasburg turn from winger to wreck, that signing with the Nats means you have a great chance at a short career launching with a team that couldn’t build and secure a Tinkertoy tent.

Damn right it’s fun, fun, fun to say “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and way out in first in the National League East.” Damn right it’s going to be fun to watch the Nats in the postseason no matter how far they actually go without their main lancer. But won’t it be even more fun to watch, very possibly, the Nats going back again and again, maybe even picking up a couple of rings, with Strasburg on the mound, and without having to worry about 95 percent of the time whether he’s going to break in half for good along the way?

I guess it won’t be, to enough people. Among them, the kind of people who let a great conspiracy theory—or a pitcher with a whole career ahead of him getting wrecked by overwork before he hits 25—get in the way of plain sense.

Free-Falling Mets: Feeling the Heat; or, Bench Pressed

The Mets are free-falling. They’ve just wrapped an 0-6 homestand and probably can’t wait to beat it out of town for a West Coast trip. Maybe they’re not as good as they looked in the first half. Maybe nobody should have expected them to stay the race course. But this is getting ridiculous: the bench calling the wrong pitch at the wrong time and letting the other guys put a reachable game further out of reach than it should have been.

What did he know . . .

They got pasted by the Washington Nationals Wednesday afternoon. The possible key, other than Stephen Strasburg keeping them quiet with eleven punchouts in seven innings: if the Mets think calling pitches from the dugout can be successful without bothering to know what the batter in question likes to hit and hits most often, the Mets need to re-adjust their thinking. Fast.

If manager Terry Collins wants accountability, as he demanded appropriately enough when he ripped into the Mets after the 5-2 loss, he may want to start with pitching coach Dan Warthen. Sending his players a message is one thing, but it’s only right to send his coaches a comparable message if and when need be. And it seems to need be right now.

The scenario: Reliever Tim Byrdak facing Adam LaRoche with two out, top of the seventh, and the game still within the Mets’ reach, the Nats leading 3-1. Byrdak had LaRoche to deuces wild. Catcher Josh Thole put down a sign for a fastball. Byrdak wanted to throw LaRoche a curve. He must have known something about his opponent: LaRoche this season (according to FanGraphs) crushes fastballs compared to what he does with a curve ball. He’s hit curve balls only 11.9 percent of the time this year, compared to 51 percent fastball hitting and 14 percent slider hitting.

Byrdak shook off the fastball sign twice. The fastball sign kept coming. Finally, he threw the fastball. And LaRoche sent it into the right field seats. 5-1, Nats. Byrdak first had a thing or two to say to Thole, who must have indicated the signs were coming from Warthen, and Byrdak then trained his fire on the pitching coach. Byrdak acknowledged he didn’t execute the fastball well; it went right down the pipe.

But something is dreadfully wrong when a pitcher wants to throw a pitch he knows the hitter isn’t hitting well, yet his pitching coach insists on throwing him a pitch he can murder. Maybe LaRoche would have sat on the curve; maybe he would have beaten it into the ground or fouled it off. Don’t discount the possibility that the heater Byrdak did serve, under some duress, had less on it than it might have had if he were throwing the pitch with a clear mind. At the very least, letting Byrdak throw the curve he wanted to throw on 2-2 would have given him that much better to beat his opposing hitter, if the hitter isn’t hitting curve balls with any great authority this season.

. . . and when did he not know it?

If LaRoche strikes out, inning over. If LaRoche fouls it off, then Byrdark could have thrown LaRoche a better fastball, one slightly out of his wheelhouse, and gotten himself out of it. If LaRouche beats the curve ball into the ground, you get a ground out for your trouble and inning over. If the man isn’t hitting the curve ball and you’ve got him 2-2, you should be thinking curve ball since you’ve got at least an 88 percent chance (and probably higher) of getting him out for the side.

So Byrdak was probably right and Warthen was probably wrong. Is Warthen is being given more autonomy over pitch selection than he should be given? If so, is he bothering to scout the opposing hitters appropriately? Has he paid much if any attention to LaRoche’s hitting tendencies? Did he pay any before insisting Byrdak throw LaRoche a pitch that landed in the right field seats. For that matter, did Thole not know enough about LaRoche’s tendencies that he didn’t feel sure enough in shaking off the bench signs and letting Byrdak have his head?

The Mets have enough problems since the All-Star break with an incendiary bullpen, an injury-compromised starting rotation, and scattered offence. The last thing they need is the bench pouring gasoline on the bullpen’s fires by calling the wrong pitches at the wrong times to the wrong hitters.

“We’re gonna get through it,” Collins told reporters, after the game and (presumably) his verbal spanking of his players, “and you’re gonna see a different team in the next two weeks. I don’t deal with excuses. I deal with accountability, standing up and being a man and playing the game right. We’re gonna get back on track. I’m not gonna mention names, but I just know that when times get tough, it’s human nature to forget to look in the mirror once in a while.”

Collins isn’t wrong. But his pitching coach shouldn’t be exempted from the accountability rule.