As of this writing, the Washington Nationals have the best record in baseball, and are the only team in the Major Leagues to reach the 70-win plateau. The squad is 4.5 games up on the Atlanta Braves, and Baseball Prospectus is predicting that there is over a 97% chance that the Nats will make the playoffs for the very first time in their history. Baseball fans in Washington D.C. are fixated on just that, the historic shift of their still young franchise from being a seller dweller to arguably the best team in all of baseball. Washingtonians are excited; they are coming to the park, and wearing their Curly "W" with pride.
The national media, however, seems to be fixated on a simple truth that Washington fans accepted as an inevitable occurrence back in March. Stephen Strasburg will be shut down sometime after he pitches about 160 innings, regardless of whether or not the team has a chance to compete for a World Series. ESPN, Yahoo! Sports, Fox Sports, and other outlets, however, have asserted that not only is the Nats' decision to shut down their hurler questionable (an arguable point), but also that Nationals fans should be outraged by the decision.
Take a look at this quote from ESPN's Stephen A. Smith on ESPN's First Take as transcribed by D.C. Sports Bog:
"I just don’t know what’s happened to the sport. I’m not in a position to argue about it. I just don’t understand how these guys are so coddled, and the need to protect these guys. I know he’s less than two years removed from Tommy John surgery. I understand that. I truly do. But I’m thinking about those paying customers.”
"It’s not like you’ve (The Nationals) been relevant any time before. And now the citizens of the nation’s capital have got an opportunity to be competitive, and you’re talking about taking this guy out? It makes me sick to my stomach. I almost feel like the fans are totally getting robbed here.”
Personally, I have been very surprised to hear not only the national media, but many of out of town friends express how upset I must be at the team I love for making this decision. That Rizzo is somehow stealing something great from Washington for being responsible, and that the Nats aren't getting a fair shake and wasting a great opportunity. Many have hypothesized bogus tactics on how the team could conserve Strasburg, perhaps by shutting him down now and reviving him later, showing a complete lack of understanding of the principles of arm conservation. For whatever the reason, people outside of the beltway are outraged for us...
Perhaps its just me...but as someone who has a pretty tight pulse on the thoughts and emotions of Nationals fans, I have not felt or heard any of this rhetoric locally. In fact, it seems to me that most people in our nation's capital, while disappointed, have fully accepted the fact that Strasburg will in no way be part of Washington's push for a World Series in 2012. My personal feelings are pretty straight forward on the matter. It was decided, expressed and widely accepted before we knew that the Nats would be the best team in baseball that Strasburg would not finish out the season with Washington. Now that the Nats have a chance to win a World Series, only the unreasonable, as well as those who want to create ratings by concocting controversy, want the Nationals to change their strategic plans on one of their two most valuable assets as opposed to erring on the side of caution.
I polled my Twitter and Facebook following today and asked them their feelings on the matter. While only several dozen people answered, only two noted that they wished Washington would reconsider their decision. The others expressed both that they are confident in the team's rotation without Strasburg, and that since we knew this all along, we really are ready for it to happen. It was hardly a scientific poll, but it seems to me that Nats fans were prepared for this and have accepted it.
Does doing the right thing by benching Stephen Strasburg mean we won't win a World Series this season? It's possible. But those who have been paying attention each and every night to this team know that while Stephen Strasburg may be the sexiest name in Washington right next to Bryce Harper, the Nats are the best team in baseball not because of one absolutely electric arm. This is not a Justin Verlander situation where one stellar ace seems to be the pulse of a very good club. This is a wonderfully constructed TEAM that has great hitters one through nine, versatility in the field, and a starting pitching staff that even without its number one hurler is very likely the best in baseball.
Quite simply, no matter how great he is, this team is more than Stephen Strasburg.
Yes, losing Strasburg does suck. But it's not a surprise, it's not overwhelmingly demoralizing, and for every single Washington Nationals fan that has tuned in this year, they know it is far from a death sentence. The Nationals are a team loaded with talent, and if they must go to the playoffs with a four-man rotation of Zimmermann, Gonzalez, Jackson, and Detwiler, I have no question whatsoever they have the ability to still win it all.