But with the postseason drawing closer, and the Nationals assured of being there, what also stands out about Strasburg, 29, is that he has made only one postseason start in his major league career. The reasons for that disparity have to do with the modern state of pitching and the Nationals’ October demons. Whether all that will change in the coming postseason is worth watching.
The one start Strasburg did make came in 2014, when the Nationals fell to the eventual champions, the San Francisco Giants, in four games in the first round. Strasburg was solid but not spectacular in that outing — two runs (one earned) and eight hits over five innings in Game 1 of the series.
The Nationals also lost in the first round in 2012 and 2016, hence the demons. As for Strasburg, the limits of the human body kept him from appearing in either of those two series.
“As a kid, that’s what you dream of doing, just getting an opportunity to pitch in the playoffs and even in the World Series,” Strasburg said recently. “Sometimes things happen to certain guys, injuries and so forth. I kind of question why.”
The first disappointment for him came in 2012. That season, the rebuilt Nationals arrived ahead of schedule and led the major leagues in victories. And Strasburg was an All-Star in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. But the Nationals then made a controversial, if not unprecedented, decision to shut Strasburg down for the year before the postseason even arrived. He was just three years removed from college and just two years past major surgery, and the Nationals opted to be extra cautious with his health.
“I stand by my decision,” Rizzo said after the Nationals, without Strasburg, lost in heartbreaking fashion to the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs. “We’ll take the criticism as it comes,’’ Rizzo added. “We have to do what’s best for the Washington Nationals.”
The second-guessing continued into 2013, when the Nationals failed to even reach the postseason. Then came the 2014 postseason failure, another down year for the Nationals in 2015 and then the postseason again in 2016.
In that instance, Strasburg was in the midst of another All-Star campaign when he complained of right elbow soreness in late August. He later admitted the problem was a partially torn pronator tendon, an injury he partly attributed to relying too much on a relatively new pitch, a slider.
“I just remember when everything was starting to go south, my arm wasn’t really feeling good at all,” he said. “And when I tried to throw that pitch, I felt it the most and it was like I had zero consistency.”
Strasburg missed the remainder of the 2016 regular season, but began working toward a possible return in early October, hoping to pitch if the Nationals got past their latest first-round opponent in the postseason — the Dodgers.
“I think I was good enough to pitch in some capacity if we made it to the next round,’’ he said.
That chance never came. Riding Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers sneaked by the Nationals in a memorable Game 5. And Strasburg felt helpless.
Of course, the Nationals did not lose in the 2012 and 2016 postseasons simply because they did not have Strasburg. There were other factors — poor hitting, pitching miscues and suspect managerial decisions — but having one of baseball’s best pitchers available to start games might have made a difference.
Or as Zimmerman said: “He would always make a difference every time he takes the ball. That’s why he’s special.’’
In an age when pitching injuries are more prevalent, Strasburg has hardly been immune. He is a diligent worker and stands a sturdy 6 feet 4 inches and weighs 235 pounds. But bone chips in his elbow, back discomfort, neck tightness and a latissimus strain have also slowed him at times in his major league career. He missed three weeks this summer with a nerve impingement in his right elbow, an ailment he characterized as minor.
Over all, since the start of 2012, Strasburg has made at least 23 starts a year, but has just once notched a 200-inning season, a figure he is unlikely to hit this year, either. But his velocity (about 95 miles per hour) and strikeout rate have remained steady. And Rizzo, who gave Strasburg a seven-year, $175 million contract extension last year, said he thought the 2012 shutdown had helped, even if Strasburg has had periodic physical issues.
“I look at him today and I see the stuff that he has and other pitchers that were treated differently and what they’re going through,” Rizzo said. “Pitching is not easy, especially the way these guys throw today.”
Strasburg has also learned to contend with the expectations that came with the fanfare surrounding his signing by the Nationals. He was essentially anointed a superstar before he had a chance to settle in as a major leaguer. And while he has not been a Cy Young Award winner (his fellow right-hander Max Scherzer has been twice, once in Washington) or a 20-game winner (Scherzer and another rotation mate, Gio Gonzalez, have been), Strasburg has done more than his fair share in making the Nationals a formidable franchise.
“You can’t focus in on those expectations because they’ll just wear you out,” Strasburg said of the original acclaim that shadowed him. “They’ve worn me out in the past. But I’m 29 years old and I’m still young, and hopefully just entering my prime. I’m going to enjoy it now, and whatever happens happens.”
And for Strasburg, that involves staying as healthy as possible for the remaining weeks of the regular season so that he can be ready for the deep October run his team longs for.
“September is when you get that second wind,” he said. “I’m hoping that comes soon.”
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