The Nationals needlessly turned Stephen Strasburg’s Game 4 absence into a controversy

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In 2012, the Washington Nationals’ season ended in a five-game playoff series to the St. Louis Cardinals. The storyline that dominated that series was the absence of Stephen Strasburg due to the Nationals’ decision to shut him down in September and not allow him to pitch in the postseason. Lots and lots of people got mad at that.

In 2017, the Washington Nationals are on the brink of being eliminated in a best-of-five games playoff series to the Chicago Cubs. The storyline that has dominated the past 14 hours or so: the decision not to pitch Stephen Strasburg in Game 4 due to illness. Lots and lots of people are getting mad at that now.

There are gigantic differences between these two situations, obviously, but the trigger for the anger in both cases was the manner in which Strasburg’s absence was communicated by the Nationals themselves.

In 2012, Mike Rizzo and Nats brass made it clear early in the season that Strasburg, coming back from Tommy John surgery, would be done at 160 innings. It was a curiously exact number for a decision that, even today, carries with it no amount of certainty whatsoever. It was also a decision, unlike so many other decisions in sports, that the Nats stuck with despite the fact conditions changed on the ground. Heading into the season no one expected the 2012 Nats to compete, but by early September they were clearly playoff bound. The plan with Strasburg did not change, however — the Nats position on that continued to be loudly and clearly communicated — leaving Nats fans and commentators dumbfounded and even angered. Angered in a way that, had it been handled differently and even a little less honestly — if, say, the team had suggested that Strasburg would not be at 100% if allowed to pitch in October — would likely not have turned it all into a controversy. As it is, some people still grumble about it five years later and that’s despite the fact that Strasburg’s absence that fall was not the real reason the Nats lost that series.

The 2017 Strasburg affair is making people mad for the opposite reason: poor and muddled communication regarding why, exactly, Strasburg is not pitching today.

It was assumed all day yesterday that, in the event of a rainout, the Nats would go with Strasburg on full rest for today’s game. When Dusty Baker met the press to tell them that he would not, he had to expect that people would be stunned and that they expected a dang good reason for the Nats’ best available pitcher not to pitch an elimination game.

His explanation, however, was tentative, somewhat contradictory and raised more questions than it provided answers. Specifically, he said that Strasburg had, curiously, thrown a bullpen earlier that day. That it was a matter of Strasburg being a “creature of habit.” That Tanner Roark was “slated” for the game anyway. He also said Strasburg was “under the weather.” In the wake of Baker’s press conference, Twitter was filled with Nats fans questioning Strasburg’s toughness, guts and competitive spirit. And it wasn’t just Twitter randos doing the beefing. USA Today’s Bob Nightengale wrote a column which disparaged Strasburg as well. I presume D.C. talk radio is lighting Strasburg up for this as we speak.

The only problem is that, as it turns out, Baker’s comments were either wrong or, at the very least, misleading.

  • Yes, Roark was “slated” and yes, pitchers like their “habits” but those things are irrelevant because this is the postseason and roles and habits change constantly. As such, Dusty mentioning those things suggested that Strasburg was insisting on his routine above helping his team when there is no evidence out there suggesting that he has done so;
  • The stuff regarding Strasburg’s bullpen session was found later to be simply wrong: Strasburg threw his bullpen session on Monday, preparing him for either a possible Wednesday Game 4 start or a Thursday Game 5;
  • Finally, it now turns out that Strasburg is not merely “under the weather,” a term which makes most people think of the sniffles, but truly sick, with the Washington Post’s Tom Boswell reporting that he was unable to even finish that Monday bullpen session due to fatigue.

That reporting aside, logic suggests Strasburg was not insisting on his routine and that he must be truly sick because if he wasn’t — if he was begging out of an elimination game due to his devotion to habits and/or a mild illness — Nats players would, without question, be anonymously grumbling to the media about a teammate quitting on them and we haven’t seen any of that. UPDATE: Well, maybe we’re starting to. See the link at the bottom of the article.

Since late last night, the actual information about all of this, apparently provided by Mike Rizzo and the Nats front office, began to supplant the misinformation from Baker’s press conference. For many I suspect that correction came too late and that, if the Nats lose today with Tanner Roark on the hill, they will disparage Strasburg for quitting on his team and blame him for a playoff loss.

If that’s the case, the Nationals, pilloried five years ago for clear communication of an unpopular decision regarding their ace,  can blame their poor communication about him for the controversy.

UPDATE: More on this from the Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga, who usually has a pretty good handle on the Nats clubhouse. He’s pretty sharp here, noting that, yes, the Nats bungled the communications on all of this, but going further and suggesting that Strasburg really did beg out. If so, I suspect we’ll soon hear some more specific recriminations from Nats players on it all. Maybe that comes if and when the Nats are eliminated.