WASHINGTON – What if this is the best chance? What if Washington’s greatest baseball season in decades is in fact THE season? What if this was to be the World Series year and the Nationals now squander it by sitting their best pitcher – maybe the best pitcher in baseball – for the postseason?
The thought settled over Braves third baseman Chipper Jones like a sigh on Wednesday afternoon, mainly because he spent a career chasing a mountain of World Series titles that never came.
“You can’t take anything for granted,” he said, sitting in the visitor’s clubhouse at Nationals Park. “I made it for 12 years and won one championship.”
He stopped and the words stood still in the air.
Twelve postseasons. One championship. In Jones’ case he won a title his first full season and then never again. You don’t know when the magic is right.
This is important because on a night when the Braves kept the Nationals from running away with the National League East, Jones could look into the future and know Washington is making a serious mistake in holding Strasburg back from the playoffs.
Yes, the Nationals are worried about pushing Strasburg past an arbitrary number of innings they have determined to be proper in his first full season after Tommy John surgery. It’s a number that floats somewhere between 160 and 180, though it is fluid. What seems certain is Strasburg will miss the postseason. And that Jones can’t fathom.
“If I was him, I’d be throwing a fit,” Jones said of Strasburg.
It has not escaped Jones or the rest of the Braves that sitting Strasburg might be a gift to them.
"They're the best team top to bottom that I've seen this year, Yankees, Dodgers, everyone," Jones says.
Given that the Braves currently lead the wild-card race, there is a good chance they will face the Nationals again in the first round of playoffs. And what are the Nationals without Strasburg? Is a postseason rotation led by Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann enough?
Jones himself will walk away from baseball after this season, meaning the looming playoffs are his last chance at that elusive second title. Still, there is a part of him that loves and cherishes the game so much he can’t grasp the decision to pull a healthy superstar in the middle of the franchise’s greatest season.
But Jones was asked what if the Nationals decided to let Strasburg pitch in October only to have him blow out his arm in the first playoff game?
“I don’t think anybody would be angry about it,” he said. “How do you think the fans would feel? Do you think they would weigh a World Series championship against a Strasburg injury?”
Meaning the risk is worth it.
In the summer of a new quarterback in Washington where much of the sports talk for months has been about Robert Griffin III, the Nationals have pounded a hole into the Redskins wall. But it has taken the unsettling debate of whether the Nats should pull their top pitcher from the postseason to do it. Suddenly everyone has an opinion: from participants on political talk shows to pickup basketball players at the gym to strangers in line at the post office.
What to do with Strasburg?
Even Washington manager Davey Johnson’s shoulders seemed to droop as he sat down for his daily press conference on Wednesday and said: “Anybody have any ideas for getting Strasburg pitching in October?”
Apparently he has been deluged with helpful suggestions that pile in daily both through texts on his cell phone and letters in his clubhouse mailbox.
The latest Strasburg news Johnson delivered is that he and general manager Mike Rizzo, who has declared the pitcher will be shut down, have looked at the schedule and decided the close-off date will probably come about two starts before the end of the regular season. That puts it sometime around the next-to-last week of the year. Johnson also said Strasburg will know the start is his final one before he takes the mound. The team won’t leave him wondering when his season will be stopped.
But in the visiting clubhouse, down a corridor at Nationals Park, the details didn’t seem to matter to Jones. He gets what Rizzo is doing. But sometimes protecting the player is the wrong thing to do. Sometimes winning is bigger than everything.
“I know some of those guys over there,” he said, nodding his head toward the Washington clubhouse. “They are trying to toe the party line. I know they aren’t happy their No. 1 pitcher isn’t going to be out there.”
Then he shook his head.
“Next year what if Zimmermann gets hurt again?” Jones said. “What if Gio Gonzalez goes down? There is a certain set of circumstances. Sometimes things aren’t the same. As those [pitchers] get older they will lose a little bit of speed on their fastballs. They will be a little more hittable. You have to strike while the iron’s hot.”
With that, the player who expected a mountain of championships that never came, stood up. Soon he would head to the field to begin yet another workout routine in a brilliant career that came a few World Series short of unforgettable. He grunted.
How could the Nationals willingly let this one great chance get away?
He shook his head again.
The whole thing just seems so wrong.
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