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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