The Philadelphia Phillies hope that 2013 will mark their return to power in the NL East and beyond. Yet Phillies fans like myself know that will be a tough task, especially with the rise of the Washington Nationals. Now that the Nationals have gone from cellar dweller to contender in rapid time, the expectation is that they could dominate the NL East for some time. In fact, Washington is so sure of it that it shut Stephen Strasburg down for the rest of 2012 to secure that future.
With the controversial Strasburg shut down plan now finally enacted on Sept. 8, the Nationals will find out if sidelining Strasburg will preserve their future or destroy it. For the Phillies' sake, they have to hope for the latter - because if the Nationals go far in the playoffs without Strasburg, then there will be real trouble for Philadelphia.
The doom and gloom side of the Strasburg shut down debate is that Washington is destroying its future, rather than preserving it. By resting their ace, the Nationals are seemingly wrecking their chances for a World Series this year, although there is no guarantee that they can come so close again.
Washington is convinced that sidelining Strasburg after 159 innings in 2012 will make him ready to pitch 200 innings a year after that, and bring them many championships. Yet if he blows out his arm anyway and the Nationals collapse, everyone will say they blew their one and only chance for glory in 2012 by being so paranoid. If that happens, then there will be room for the Phillies to take back the NL East and put together a final championship run with its current core.
Even if Strasburg stays healthy in the future, the psychological toll could be great. If the Nationals get knocked out early this October without him, there will be endless, crushing pressure for them to win a title later on and make it all worth it. But considering how the toll of being shut down finally got to Strasburg in his last start, can he and his arm handle a whole season - or several - of such unending pressure?
Yet there is a best case scenario for the Nationals - and a worst case for the Phillies and every other National League team. If Washington can defy the odds and win a pennant or a World Series with Strasburg shut down, what more could it do when he comes back?
A Nationals franchise that tanks in October without him could be very vulnerable. But a franchise that gets him back for a full season after reaching or winning a World Series could be all powerful - and the worst nightmare for the Phillies.
No matter what, this next month will be a game-changer for the Nationals and every team looking to challenge them. If Washington's shut down strategy works exactly like it hopes it will this year and beyond, then Philadelphia and all other rivals could spend years trying to catch up. But if the Nationals and Strasburg cannot recover from this, then the Phillies will have new hope and the entire NL will breathe a sigh of relief.
Is this year the beginning of a Nationals dynasty, or was Sept. 8 the day they forfeited one away? The answer will start to form in the next several weeks, with everyone - even a Phillies club with nothing else to do - watching the outcome in Washington very closely.
Robert Dougherty is a life-long Philadelphia resident who has followed the Phillies since he was eight years old.
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