HOUSTON – The shutdown that shook baseball paid off for Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals.
It just took seven seasons.
Strasburg was voted MVP of the World Series following the Nationals’ 6-2 win over the Houston Astros in Game 7 on Wednesday night, the first title in the 51 seasons of the Washington/Montreal Expos franchise.
Ending the most prolific of 10 big league seasons for the 31-year-old right-hander, Strasburg went 5-0 with a 1.98 ERA in five postseason starts and one relief appearance, including victories in Games 2 and 6 of the Series.
Long after Strasburg was shut down because of an innings limit following Tommy John surgery, he helped lead the Nationals to the championship.
“I slept like a baby when we made the decision,” Washington general manager Mike Rizzo said Wednesday. “I knew more information than the people criticizing. I’ve got a pretty thick skin being in the game this long.”
Selected by Washington with the first pick in the 2009 amateur draft, Strasburg made his first Nationals start a year later and grabbed attention with 14 strikeouts, the most in a big league debut since Houston’s J.R. Richard in 1971. But after Strasburg’s 12th start came the shocking news, three of the most dreaded words in baseball: Tommy John surgery.
Strasburg returned for five abbreviated starts in September 2011 and was 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA and 197 strikeouts in 159 1/3 innings when the Nationals cut short his 2012 season on Sept. 8, citing the need to protect his arm. Washington finished with a big league-best 98 wins but without its ace lost to St. Louis in a five-game Division Series.
“What if?” became the team motto, at least for Nationals fans.
Not for Strasburg.
“I think you try not to look in the past and you try not to look in the future,” he said during a break in the post-game celebration. “I think it’s much more of a challenge to not kind of see how it’s going to all play out, especially over this last month. But, again, it just comes back to trying to be in the moment and giving everything you have.”
Strasburg’s October is unmatched, the first pitcher to go 5-0 in a single postseason – Arizona’s Randy Johnson was 5-2 in 2001 and Angels reliever Francisco Rodriguez 5-1 the following year. Stras, as teammates call him, struck out 47 and walked four in 36 1/3 innings. He gave up four runs over 14 1/3 innings in an analytic era of quick hooks.
“Through all the adversity I think I’ve learned a lot about myself. When you have the ups and downs, I think you can learn just as much from the downs as you can the up,” he said. “I’ve learned that I’m a perfectionist. I’ve learned that I’m a control freak. And in this game it’s very hard to be perfect. It’s very hard to control things.
“But the one thing that you can control is your approach and how you handle your business off the field. And when you go out there and compete, it’s just about execution. And you put in all the work in the offseason, in between starts, to go out there and try and be the best version of yourself. And that’s something you can control every time.”
Intense and quiet, Stras and Mad Max Scherzer are the yin and yang of the Nationals’ championship rotation.
“Max is a little bit more outgoing – rambunctious maybe is the word. And Stras is a little more subtle in his behavior,” manager Dave Martinez said before Game 7. “In case you didn’t notice yesterday when the game was over, there was a group hug for Stras. They all got together and gave him a big hug. … When Max does it and pitches, he wants all those hugs.”
Having finished the third season of a contract guaranteeing $175 million over seven years – and earning an extra $250,000 for the World Series MVP honor – Strasburg can opt out of his deal, give up $100 million and become a free agent. He is coming off his most durable season, going 18-6 with a 3.32 ERA and 251 strikeouts in an NL-high 209 innings, boosting his record to 112-58 in 10 seasons.
In 2015, the New York Mets let Matt Harvey pitch 216 innings in his return from Tommy John surgery, and they reached the World Series before losing to Kansas City in five games. He hasn’t had a winning season since and his career is uncertain going into 2020.
Strasburg was protected and endures.
“Sometimes the hardest decisions aren’t the most popular decisions,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “I think the most important thing is the organization really did have the best interests in mind for the player. And I think sometimes that gets lost in the equation. So I respect the heck out of them for doing that for Stephen.”
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