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Ryan Zimmerman thinks Strasburg shutdown is reason why Strasburg is dominant now

Ryan Zimmerman thinks Strasburg shutdown is reason why Strasburg is dominant now

Back in 2012, arrival in the playoffs was unexpected and pleasurable. The Nationals graduated from mediocre (80-81) to force (98-64), producing the franchise’s most successful regular-season team to date.

They weren’t supposed to be. Maybe in 2013 or 2014, when Stephen Strasburg could pitch more or 19-year-old rookie Bryce Harper operated with further seasoning, the Nationals would be ready for the playoffs. That’s how the narrative at the time framed up. Yet, here they were, hosting the National League Division Series against St. Louis, now their opponent in the National League Championship Series beginning Friday night.

“It was a long time ago,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “I always say 2012 was such a fun year because we weren't supposed to be good for another a year or two after that. I've also said that group of guys sort of reminds me of this group that we have. We kind of got on a roll that year unexpectedly and just kind of ran with it. We had some veteran guys that kept everyone loose. We had a lot of fun on that team. We did some silly things. We made fun of each other. Nobody was safe, I always said, on that team. 

“So there's definitely some comparisons as far as the character of that team. Everything's different. What we've done with this team I don't think is comparable to anyone else. More that feel than the actual series. Every series is different and so many things have changed since then. And the experience that a lot of us have is so much different. It's a fun city to play in ... one of the best baseball towns in the country. Should be a fun environment.”

That series is recalled for two prominent things: the Strasburg shutdown and the organization’s first Game 5 collapse. 

Not allowing Strasburg to pitch in the postseason -- replacing him in the rotation with Jon Lannan -- remains a topic of torment seven years later. Political figures including Senator Mitch McConnell and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, joined a bevy of local and national talking heads to state their opinion on whether Strasburg should be allowed to pitch in October. He said before Game 5 of the NLDS there’s not much personal reflection on the topic.

“No, [I] try not to look in the past, try not to look in the future, really just try and be in the moment,” Strasburg said. “Once you start thinking about how things could have been or what things might happen, it takes your focus away from what your job is.”

Strasburg remains alone if he is not looking back at the start of this series. The decision was, and remains, one of the most striking choices in the history of the franchise. Zimmerman was in his prime then. The choice may have cost him a chance to advance. Though, he thinks it helped set the Nationals up for where they are now.

“I think what we did in 2012 is the reason why he is the type of pitcher he is now,” Zimmerman said. “Obviously I don’t make those decisions, and in 2012, it was a highly debated issue. But at that point, as tough a decision as it was to not pitch him, I think they were honestly looking out for the best interest of the player. You've seen some guys that have tried to push the limit coming back from that surgery and things haven't turned out too well. So in the moment, it was a tough decision and maybe not a very popular decision. But you could also say that Stephen wouldn't be the pitcher that he is now or be doing what he is now if they didn't make that decision.”

And, where would the Nationals be? They became an organization known for failing in Game 5. The 2012 postseason started a faltering legacy when a 6-0 lead in the final game evaporated and Pete Kozma received his moment to shine in a four-run ninth inning. 

This year, they are the unlikely team again. However, the sense is different, as Zimmerman pointed out. No longer are they the upstart franchise. They are home to expectations and, for once, dealing out the heartbreak. Strasburg is along for the ride, too.



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Nationals leave Winter Meetings with new fight against complacency underway

Nationals leave Winter Meetings with new fight against complacency underway

SAN DIEGO -- Quiet finally settled over the downtown Hyatt in San Diego on Thursday morning. The baseball industry packed, then left, leaving behind every imaginable facet of the pro machine. Commissioner Rob Manfred spoke Wednesday and a report trying to explain fluctuations with the baseball was delivered. All 30 managers held media sessions across the three days. Recent graduates hunted starts to front office futures. Clubhouse attendants held a meeting of their brethren. Everyone was perpetually stuck in the slow-moving elevators.

In essence, the Nationals’ defense of their World Series title started in southern California while these events transpired around them. They made an enormous move by signing Stephen Strasburg. They continued to manage the third base market, watching warily as they tried to figure out how not to be left short after Anthony Rendon signed a long-term contract with Anaheim and the frenzy for Josh Donaldson began. The Nationals also still need bullpen help.

In addition, a new battle against complacency exists. What’s happening for the Nationals is an offseason unlike any other because they won, and its fresh dynamics include convincing someone full he is still hungry. Ways to do that? Subtle changed mixed with standard procedures. They hope.

Next season always comes calling, loaded with the same 162-game grind, even for those teams who were still pitching on Halloween. Recent champions -- in particular the Nationals -- deployed their starting pitchers differently in the postseason en route to a title. Patrick Corbin made three postseason starts and came out of the bullpen five times. An injection coupled with a chiropractic rescue enabled Max Scherzer’s Game 7 start. Stephen Strasburg threw more pitches than anyone in baseball. 

Boston eased its pitchers into the 2019 season and appeared to pay for it. Their starters rarely threw in spring training games after winning a championship. Three of them threw seven innings or fewer in games during the Grapefruit season. Scherzer threw 26 and 26 ⅔ innings, respectively, the last two spring trainings. So, Mike Rizzo expects standard programming in West Palm Beach, not additional rest.

“I just think that we remind them what we do this stuff for and the elation that we had I think is still going to be with us and for us to feel that way again, we know what it takes to get there,” Rizzo said. “It’s a long hard road and it’s a lot of work. It starts Day 1 spring training and ends the last game. That’s going to be our outlook. We’re going to prepare for spring training like we have every other year. We’re not going to be complacent because we played an extra month of baseball. We’re not going to make any adjustments for preparation of our pitchers.”

Davey Martinez made adjustments. He swung his coaching staff around, moving Bob Henley to first base, Chip Hale to third and Tim Bogar to bench coach. Why? In part to reboot the holdover staff before they begin working with the players.

“Complacency,” Martinez said. “Everybody talks about those World Series blues, and that’s one thing we don’t want. We don’t want to be complacent. There’s going to be a target on our back, so we’ve got to come out and be ready to play from day one. We want these guys to understand that. We’re not just going to sit around and say: ‘Well, we’ve got plenty of time.’ No, the time is from day one. We’re going to get ready for the season, and hopefully do it again.”

Martinez will work with the same premise at spring training: go 1-0. He can still ride other sayings -- like “win your day” -- but the large white flag which said “Conquer” in red letters and traveled with the team is probably due for retirement. “Stay in the fight” fell with the end of the regular season. “Fight finished” isn’t phrasing which can carry to a new season.

“The message is going to be clear: Hey, we're not going to sneak up on anybody this year, that's for sure,” Martinez said. “So we've got to be ready to go from day one. With that being said, I want them to understand, hey, we're going to do business like we've done in the past, and we're just going to try to go 1-0 every day. Why change something that works?”

Why change? That’s the question, and the answer for the defending champions seems to be they don’t want to. Get ready. Stay ready. Try to do it again as if it never happened.


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How Nats fans should view letting Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon walk in back-to-back years

How Nats fans should view letting Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon walk in back-to-back years

When you are as successful as the Washington Nationals, and as good at replenishing your roster with talent as they are, apparently this is the cost of doing business.

For the second straight winter, the Nats have let an elite player walk in free agency. First, it was Bryce Harper, who left to join the Phillies. This time it is Anthony Rendon, who has signed a seven-year contract worth $245 million to play for the Los Angeles Angels.

Both entered free agency as the best position players on the market, perennial MVP candidates who could someday make the Hall of Fame. But the Nationals don't pay position players, they pay starting pitchers and that blueprint helped them win the World Series just six weeks ago.

The fact Rendon got an identical contract from the Angels that Stephen Strasburg did from Washington solidifies the fact they had to choose between them on equal footing. One was not cheaper than the other, this was about big-picture philosophy. This was ownership giving general manager Mike Rizzo a budget and him choosing to allocate money in his rotation and not in his lineup.

Rizzo, of course, has now been a part of two World Series teams that employed that strategy, if you include his days as the scouting director in Arizona. They won the 2001 title and did so with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling leading the way.

The Nationals' decisions to let Harper and Rendon walk should be viewed through that lens. And they should also be stowed away for future reference.

Surely, the idea of letting one player walk to sign another can't be cited ever again. Just because they didn't pay Harper didn't mean they would pay Rendon, and we should know better when looking ahead to Juan Soto, Trea Turner and others.

Those are the main takeaways from Rendon's departure from a baseball perspective, which is the way Rizzo and his front office are paid to view things. But certainly hammering home those details will only do so much to make Nationals fans feel better as they watch another homegrown, likeable star venture off to another team.

What Nationals fans have experienced in these two cases, both within 10 months of each other, is not normal. To lose two players of this caliber in consecutive offseasons is a uniquely tough pill to swallow. That's a lot of jerseys that won't be worn anymore.

Few fanbases have been fortunate enough in recent years to even have two players as good as Harper and Rendon on the same team at the same time. That extends to having them leave. Usually, players as good as they are don't go elsewhere and, if they do, it is because they play for small market teams with low payrolls, and often their exits feel inevitable.

The Nationals aren't a small market team and, as much as some fans might argue, they aren't cheap. But they have acquired so much talent over the past 10 years that they simply can't keep them all.

So, in a way, it can be seen as a good thing. Harper and Rendon left in part because the Nats have a surplus of talent. And, in true Rizzo form, they have replacements waiting in the wings.

When Harper dipped for Philly, there were questions of whether Soto and Victor Robles could replace his production. They not only stepped up to mitigate the loss, but Soto is now by most accounts even better than Harper.

With Rendon now gone, the Nats can turn to Carter Kieboom. He may not play third base, but he's an infielder and a right-handed batter who hits for average and power. He's a top-20 MLB prospect and last season hit .303 with a .902 OPS in Triple-A.

Harper and Rendon aren't the first stars to leave their team in free agency, and Rendon isn't the first to jump ship right after winning a World Series. In L.A., he will join arguably the most famous case of that, Albert Pujols who after winning a title with the Cardinals in 2011 left to sign with the Angels.

Nationals fans should just take solace in the fact the team's front office is always thinking ahead. Plenty of talent remains on the roster and reinforcements are on the way.

Just like how fans became further attached to Rendon when Harper left, it's time to do the same with Soto or someone else. As the churn continues, enjoy them while they last.