The Nationals rose to contention in 2012, emerging from the depths of the NL East standings to establish themselves as soon-to-be perennial contenders behind a young core highlighted by back-to-back No. 1 overall picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.
But heading into that campaign, Washington announced that Strasburg would be placed on an innings limit in what was his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. It was a highly scrutinized move at the time, as the Nationals won 98 games but went into the playoffs without their young phenom.
MLB Network analyst and former major-league pitcher Ron Darling joined D.C. Sports on Thursday to talk about the Strasburg shutdown, which came in at No. 17 in NBC Sports Washington’s Big Twenty series that highlights the 20 biggest sports stories in D.C. over the first 20 years of the decade.
“I remember just thinking to myself, ‘What a shame that Washington’s not going to have him in the postseason,’” Darling said. “But more importantly, I just tried to concentrate on—there is no team in baseball that is gonna make a decision that is gonna hurt the player and hurt their ball club.
“They just felt, because he was coming off an injury, that that was the best thing to do. Remember, they decided in Spring Training that they were going to hold him to an innings limit and I really commend them. I think it was one of the most difficult things the organization ever had to do. But they were brave and stood their ground.”
Darling himself was told in 1992 that he should undergo Tommy John surgery, but instead he elected to reinvent himself as a pitcher and alter his mechanics to put less stress on his elbow. However, Darling was in the midst of his age-31 season at the time, while Strasburg was just 22 when he went under the knife.
Although he believes putting Strasburg’s health first was the right thing to do, Darling does think the Nationals could’ve handled the situation better from a public relations standpoint.
“The only mistake I thought, was going into the season in Spring Training, they gave the innings limit,” Darling said. “I always thought there was no reason really to do that because as he got closer and closer to that innings limit, of course the media and fans and his teammates started to anticipate that shutdown so I think it put a lot of pressure on the organization, on the player, on his teammates.”
Seven years after the Nationals voluntarily ended Strasburg’s season, they won the World Series behind the strength of their starting rotation—led by Strasburg. Washington won all six games he appeared in during its 2019 playoff run. The right-hander posted a 1.98 ERA and 11.6 K/9 over 36 1/3 innings in the postseason after leading the NL with 209 regular-season innings and placing fifth in Cy Young voting.
“I don’t know if winning the World Series vindicates it,” Darling said. “I think what it has done, though, and proven, is that they’ve put Stephen Strasburg not only in a place to have an amazing career, but now he’s on a trajectory to be a Hall of Fame-kind of pitcher.
“Yes, it’s going to be four or five more years of great excellence that he’s shown, but that’s where the vindication comes, is that he’s had a great career, his trajectory is going to be a Hall of Fame career and I think the ironic part about it is that since the Strasburg shutdown, his performance in the postseason is about as good as anyone to ever toe the hill. So that’s to me where the vindication is.”
Washington has been rewarded for its patience with its prized starter. After signing a seven-year, $245 million extension at the Winter Meetings in December, Strasburg ensured that he’ll be chasing a plaque in Cooperstown as a member of the Nationals.
He mentioned several times at his subsequent press conference in D.C. the trust he built with the organization, trust undoubtedly established by how the team prioritized his health over everything early in his career. It may have been an unpopular decision in 2012. But if the Nationals had the chance to go back and do it all again, they’d make the same choice every single time.
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