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Ron Darling believes Nationals are vindicated for Strasburg shutdown

Ron Darling believes Nationals are vindicated for Strasburg shutdown

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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Kurt Suzuki finds himself in surprising spot of headline maker

Kurt Suzuki finds himself in surprising spot of headline maker

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Kurt Suzuki will turn 37 years old while in a major-league uniform if the Nationals play October baseball again this season. This is year 14 and the second stop with one of four teams he’s played for. Suzuki spent time in the American League,
 then the National League, then back to the AL before a return to the NL. He’s well-traveled.

Which makes the headlines cooking with his name all the stranger to him. Following comments to The Washington Post that the Houston Astros were using a whistling system to steal signs in the 2019 World Series, Suzuki’s name was hurled to the front of the cross-player sniping currently pervasive in Major League Baseball. Houston’s Carlos Correa transitioned to specifically talk about Suzuki on Saturday when he rumbled through a session with Astros writers. Sunday, Suzuki conducted his own group session, something he was partly in disbelief about, and something he doesn’t want to keep occurring. 

“Honestly, I’m too old to get in the middle,” Suzuki said. “I really don’t associate myself with this kind of stuff. I just kind of go about my business and try to stay out of everything and get ready to play baseball. That’s what it’s about -- playing baseball.”

Suzuki’s steady answers Sunday inside the Nationals’ clubhouse focused on two ideas: he’s enjoying the World Series and preparing for 2020. Suzuki stopped short of saying “I’m just here so I don’t get fined,” but that was the general tenor after he politely agreed to talk with reporters despite being self-aware enough to realize the topic.

“I thought you guys were going to talk about the 1-for-20 in the World Series,” Suzuki joked.

He made the same joke with teammates before heading to meet the media. He was asked where that “one” landed.

“Train tracks.”

Suzuki joined Yan Gomes, pitching coach Paul Menhart, Davey Martinez and others in devising a multi-tiered system to protect signs against the Astros in the World Series. Suzuki did not say Sunday he knew the Astros were cheating in the World Series. 

“You hear stuff around the league,” Suzuki said. “All you do is you do your due diligence and you try to prepare yourself to not get into that situation. We just did our homework on our end and did everything we possibly can to combat the rumors going around and we just prepared ourselves. That was the bottom line: just getting ready for it if it did happen.”

His session of diffusement ended with a nod to Max Scherzer’s comments from when spring training began. Scherzer bounced back questions about the Astros by advising reporters to go talk to them. 

“That’s their situation,” Suzuki said. “I think Scherzer said it best. They are the ones that have to do the answering. We’re just getting ready for the 2020 season to defend the title. That’s it. We’re getting ready, enjoying our teammates, enjoying the World Series and getting ready for the season.”

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Everyone notices when Victor Robles arrives at spring training

Everyone notices when Victor Robles arrives at spring training

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The double doors from the field into the Nationals clubhouse pushed open Saturday morning, and in strode Victor Robles.

He was dressed mostly in black, his preferred thin hoodie up over his head, big gold watch on his wrist, and general mojo bursting about. Robles made announcements in Spanish and English. He provided hugs for most. Not long after walking in, he ended up in one of his common reclining positions, this one inside a mobile laundry basket, folded like an overgrown kid in a shopping cart. Robles laying on the floor with his legs on a folding chair while burning through his phone will come later.

The clubhouse was sparsely populated upon his arrival Saturday. He ventured down the freshly-painted hall and ended up in the manager’s office, previously existing as a serene setting. Music drifted out of the open door. A green candle passively burned. Davey Martinez, once again able to drink coffee thanks to a clean bill of health, was doing some reading.

“He just came in really loud,” Martinez said. “I said, ‘What are you doing here? I’m not supposed to see you until Monday. Come back Monday.’”

And an addition: “I love him.”

Robles was the Saturday jolt in West Palm Beach on an otherwise bleak day. Rain romped through in varied bursts. The workout was cut short, everyone packed and Washington’s side of the spring training complex receded peacefully into the afternoon after the pitchers threw. Meanwhile, their fellow residents at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches continued to tussle with the world at large.

Amid the rain, Robles wandered out to the batting cages with two bats in hand and wearing a T-shirt he manually removed the sleeves from. One of the questions -- of the few in what is a stable camp with limited open spots and decisions -- is what kind of growth will come from Robles.

Will he step forward on offense, helping to mitigate the offensive production loss from Anthony Rendon’s departure? Will he move up in the lineup if he’s more disciplined at the plate? Where is his offensive ceiling a year after he became a Gold Glove finalist in center field?

The defense is there. Robles pushed aside much of the rawness he dealt with early in the season to become one of the league’s best defensive outfielders. His lack of experience coupled with determination to run into anything in his way caused specific concern among the Nationals’ coaching staff when the team went to Wrigley Field for the first time. The message to Robles about playing in Wrigley? “The wall is brick. You will lose.”

But, this is how Robles does things; he's living an upbeat baseball life destined to crash into the ground, a pitch, the middle of chaos. His approach also influences his plate performance. Robles swings often -- almost 49 percent of the time last season -- and is swinging at pitches out of the strike zone 31.9 percent of the time. For a comparison point: Juan Soto left the zone on 23.4 percent of his swings and swings 40.8 percent of the time overall.

“If you look at Vic’s numbers in the minor leagues, his on-base percentage was actually pretty good,” Martinez said. “We’re trying to get him -- we want him to be aggressive in the strike zone and stay within himself. That’s something we talked to him last year when he left and I know that [Kevin] Long is going to harp on it this year. Be aggressive in the strike zone, take your walks.”

Robles stole 28 bases last season despite a walk percentage of 5.7 and on-base percentage of just .326. He struck out almost four times as much as he walked.

So, the room for growth exists. The need for improvement also exists because Rendon left and the gap needs to be closed somewhere. How Robles will get there is among the spring training questions. Whether he will be heard from is not.

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