World Series contender: Washington Nationals

Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg pitches against the Braves at Nationals Park in Washington,...

Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg pitches against the Braves at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., Aug. 21, 2012. (LARRY DOWNING/Reuters)

KEN FIDLIN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:38 AM ET

No story in baseball has fascinated, inflamed and polarized more people than the soap opera-like circus surrounding Stephen Strasburg’s right elbow and the Washington Nationals’ steadfast decision to shut him down.

For months, the plan to limit Strasburg’s innings in this, his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, has been debated all over North America against the backdrop of the Nationals’ emergence as a World Series threat. Now that the plan has come to fruition, though, it’s time to go beyond the controversy and get back to the real story here.

And the real story that has been overshadowed is the sudden rise to power of a baseball franchise in a city that has one of the sorriest legacies in all of MLB history.

While the Nationals only brought baseball back to the U.S. capital eight years ago when the Expos were transplanted from Montreal, major-league baseball has been played, but for the most part not played very well, in the District of Columbia in 78 of the last 112 years.

The Senators existed from 1901 until 1960 before that original franchise moved to Minnesota and became the Twins. An expansion franchise, also named the Senators, began in 1961 and lasted 11 seasons in Washington before it moved to Texas and became the Rangers.

For the next 34 years, baseball was absent from Washington until the Expos arrived.

In all those 78 seasons, the Senators/Nationals have won more games than they lost only 17 times —14 of those winning seasons occurred before World War II. Washington teams have lost 90 or more games in 29 of those 78 seasons. Since 1936, Washington has experienced four winning seasons prior to this one. They won their only World Series in 1924, losing the Fall Classic on two other occasions: 1925 and 1933.

Whether or not the Nats have done the right thing with Strasburg will be debated for years, but that’s now been shoved off centre stage because Washington is going to the playoffs. With 88 wins (through Tuesday) and only 20 games left, they would pretty much have to lose all 20 and two of the other wild card contenders would have to play .750 baseball to get even close.

Would they prefer to have Strasburg in front of their rotation? Of course. But that’s not happening and the Nats already own the best pitching staff in the National League, whether you include Strasburg or not.

“You only need four in October,” says Washington manager Davey Johnson.

Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler are all in the top 31 NL pitchers in ERA and in the top 21 in WHIP. They are also all in the top 24 in opponents’ OPS.

The entire staff, including the bullpen, has four of the top nine pitchers in the league in terms of average fastball velocity.

“I don’t think anybody is too worried,” first baseman Adam LaRoche told the Washington Post. “Our other starters go up against the best in the business and shut ’em down. You see teams piece it together late in the season and in the postseason with just a couple of good pitchers. Come on. This is like a dream here for a manager or pitching coach to have that many options.”

Indeed, when the shutdown of Strasburg was announced last weekend, his ERA was fifth in the Washington rotation since May 15. John Lannan will get the Strasburg starts down the stretch, but will probably work out of the bullpen in the playoffs.

The Nationals are not noted as a big offensive outfit, but since the all-star break, they have been at the top, or at least near it, in runs scored and team OPS. As they steam through September, the Nats also have the seven hitters they want at the top of their lineup, as well as their seven-man bullpen healthy and ready.

The Nationals certainly have a lot going for them as they head down the stretch, but one thing they do not have is a lot of playoff experience. LaRoche has been to the playoffs as a Brave and Jayson Werth has been there with the Phillies. Edwin Jackson has pitched for the Rays and the Cardinals in the postseason, winning a World Series ring last year. But, for the most part, they are young. There is a school of thought that says you have to experience the learning curve of October baseball before you can master it. The Nats are going to test that theory.

“When we are done, we can look back,” said reliever Drew Storen. “Once you step outside the bubble and start looking in, that’s when the trouble starts.”

HARPER AN OLD-TIME PLAYER

Davey Johnson, the 69-year-old skipper of the Washington Nationals has managed the likes of Hall of Famers Cal Ripken Jr., Barry Larkin and Gary Carter, but he has only one favourite player.

His name is Bryce Harper.

“Bryce might be my favourite player of all time,” the Nats manager said on a Washington radio program Wednesday. “Because he plays the game as hard as anybody can play it and he never lets up. He’s wonderful to watch.”

In his rookie season, Harper has hit .265 with a .795 OPS, 18 home runs and 49 RBI to go with 82 runs scored.

“I think he’s a Pete Rose guy,” Johnson said. “He’s just gonna be full-bore for probably 30 years. You know, there’s no let-up in this young man. He wants to be great. His parents were great; they taught him the right way. And he’s just a dandy. My guys love watching him play, and the umpires, and people around the league, they like to see it. This is old-time, hard-nosed baseball.”

As far as the Nationals’ success is concerned, Johnson predicted a division championship last spring.

“I’ll tell ya, I knew the talent was there,” he said. “You know, I’m not blind. I may be old, but I can see talent. All we had to do was play up to our ability. And if we did that, I thought we could win our division ... The young studs in the organization really have held us in there. Because we’ve had big injuries, and they’ve been the guys that have been the mainstays.”


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