When the Washington Nationals made the postseason in 2012, it was the beginning of what the D.C. baseball representatives surely hoped was a long and prosperous window of contending for championships. After spending a few years in the gutter, they found themselves in the playoffs as the NL East’s champion and were seemingly ahead of schedule. They got there in part due to contributions from the two crown jewels of their rebuild — a 19-year-old Bryce Harper and a 23-year-old Stephen Strasburg.
Even though Washington was in the postseason, their front office still had an eye on the future and chose to end Strasburg’s season right then and there. The burgeoning star didn’t throw a single pitch in the NLDS and the Nationals lost to the Cardinals in five games. St. Louis scored 12, eight and nine runs in each of their respective wins and Mike Rizzo caught enough heat to keep him warm for the many winters to follow. This isn’t to say that Strasburg pitching in 2012 would have made all the difference between a trip to the NLCS and the first of many first-round exits for the Nationals, but it could’ve helped having one of their best pitchers available.
Instead, Rizzo stuck with the plan. He and the Nationals believed that they’d have some more chances and Strasburg would eventually get a shot to do his thing in October. While the Nationals may have caught a monstrous level of flack for willingly keeping Strasburg out of the 2012 postseason, they were right about the future. Despite the 2012 NLDS starting what was a streak of playoff misery for the Nationals for most of this past decade, they’ve been in the conversation for a lot of those seasons.
What Washington couldn’t have counted on was Strasburg would end up becoming a lights-out postseason pitcher as well. Going into Game 3 of the NLCS, Strasburg had 34 innings of playoff baseball under his belt. Across those six appearances and five starts, Strasburg’s ERA was at 1.32 and his FIP was just as microscopic at 1.83. This included a 37.5 percent strikeout rate compared to a scarcely-believable 3.8 percent walk rate. Simply put, Strasburg has pitched like the best version of himself when the stakes have been the highest.
With those stats in mind, it would have been shocking had Strasburg gone out there and had anything even resembling an underwhelming performance against the St. Louis. Sure enough, Strasburg mowed down the Cardinals lineup for seven innings. St. Louis couldn’t score and they spent a lot of time swinging and missing at Strasburg’s repertoire. By the time Strasburg left, he had 12 strikeouts and the Cardinals had no runs on the board. It was a comprehensive dismantling on the part of Strasburg and it’s something that the Nationals are surely used to seeing at this point.
His performance in the playoffs is also a confirmation that all of the hype that surrounded both his entry into the big leagues and his arrival in the postseason was worth it. Keeping him out of the 2012 postseason may have been a bitter pill for the Nationals and their fans to swallow back then, but sometimes doing the right thing isn’t the most popular thing. It was the right thing for Rizzo and the Nationals front office to make sure that Strasburg didn’t over-exert himself as he returned from Tommy John surgery.
The Nationals are finally on the cusp of doing something great, and it turns out that being patient with a 23-year-old is worth it when he’s doing amazing things as a 31-year-old.