As I start this post, the Nationals are playing a day game against the Giants, in San Francisco. Through six innings, Washington’s Cuban import, Yuniesky Maya matched the Giants’ Matt Cain. Once the bullpen was brought in, the Giants summarily scored two runs and took a 3 to 1 lead. Just another day in Nationals fandom, slogging through another sub-.500 season.
Exactly one year ago, on a warm night in Washington, D.C., it seemed like, for the first time in years, a window of hope and opportunity might be opening for the Expos/Nationals franchise. Taking the mound that night for the Nationals was the 2009 #1 overall pick, 22-year old Stephen Strasburg. Having rocketed through the Nationals minor league system, with dominating stops in Harrisburg and Syracuse, Strasburg toed the rubber that evening against the equally hapless Pittsburgh Pirates.
With the two teams in such a heralded moment of the season not matching up to the luster of the even, ESPN only showed the game when the Nationals were in the field and Strasburg was still in the game. The performance was mesmerizing. In seven innings, Strasburg gave up two runs and struck out 14 – a new Nationals record. The Nationals won the game and as of June 8, 2010, they were a mere three games under .500 and six games out of first place. With guys like Ryan ZImmerman, Adam Dunn, and Josh Willingham in the lineup, the future seemed bright. Not like 2010 playoffs bright, but 2011 respectability and 2012 division champions bright.
Eleven starts and one brief stint on the Disabled List for an inflamed right shoulder later, Strasburg was shut down on August 21. Six days later, that window, open a crack, but rising upward with the signing of 2010 #1 pick Bryce Harper shut. Strasburg had a torn ulnar collateral ligament which required Tommy John Surgery, meaning he was out for upwards of 18 months. In the early days of TJ surgery, it meant a year or two before the pitcher returned, with no promise of the player returning to form. Now, nearly 90% of pitchers return from the surgery with more strength in their arm. Despite being armed with this information, the fact that the franchise’s first great hope since the 1994 season was sidelined just two months after arriving was the biggest sports disappointment I’ve felt since the Knicks lost in the NBA Finals to the Houston Rockets.
This April, the Nationals opening day pitcher was none other than the ageless Livan Hernandez – he of the 84 MPH fastball and assorted repertoire of junk. Despite injuries to Ryan Zimmerman and an anemic offense, the Nationals have stayed relatively respectable, hovering near .500 for most of the season. Also, for the first 28 games of the season, Nationals starting pitchers made it into the sixth inning.
Even with the reality that the team is not going to make the playoffs this year, I am thrilled with every victory, pissed about each loss, and aggravated every time our bullpen wastes a good starting performance. However, for me, the biggest victory came on May 23, when Stephen Strasburg threw his first bullpen session since surgery last September.
Since then he has continued to throw between 30 and 40 pitches during three bullpen sessions a week in the National’s extended Spring Training facility in Florida. There is a possibility Strasburg will start a game or two in September.
In the last few days, ESPN’s Buster Olney has tweeted a few comments about how the Braves can see a noticeable increase in Washington’s on-field talent and maturity and, after selecting infield prospect Anthony Rendon in the first round of this week’s amateur draft, a 2013 Nationals lineup that includes Prince Fielder at First, Bryce Harper in RF, and Strasburg as the ace.
It is fitting, I suppose that as I wrote about the potential 2013 Nationals team, I got a post game email letting me know that the 3-1 score from today’s Nationals-Giants game stuck. Another loss, another winnable game that slipped away. As Ryan Zimmerman rehabs in Single-A Hagerstown, uber-phenom Bryce Harper dominates Single-A, and Stephen Strasburg’s next challenge is throwing breaking balls, us fans keep watch on that window.