Stephen Strasburg was the biggest pitching prospect in baseball, maybe the biggest in baseball history. He was the No. 1 pick of the 2009 draft. He made his big-league debut a year later. He worked seven innings against the Pirates, striking out 14. He threw pitches at 100 mph. He was the phenom to end all phenoms.
After four starts, his ERA was 1.78. His fifth came at Turner Field. Tim Hudson worked for the Braves. The gathering on a Monday night in June was 42,889. Attendance the night next was half that.
The game was scoreless at the seventh-inning stretch. Then Chipper Jones walked. Brian McCann singled. Troy Glaus, coming off his one good month as a Brave, hit a double-play grounder that Ian Desmond flubbed. The Braves scored five times. They beat the famous Strasburg. They would see him many more times.
From 2007 through 2011, the Phillies ruled the National League East. When they faded, the Braves and Nationals took turns finishing first – Nats in 2012, Braves in 2013, Nats again in 2014. The Braves had great respect for the Phillies of Rollins/Utley/Howard/Halladay/Hamels. They cared rather less for the team with the self-professed #Natitude.
The Braves – and much of MLB – saw the Nats as the team that, by being terrible, lucked into Strasburg and Bryce Harper in consecutive drafts. Both were hyped to the heavens. Both were Scott Boras clients. The watching world took note when Boras suggested to the Washington Post that he and Nats GM Mike Rizzo “put this team together.”
Strasburg’s 2010 season, which begin with rockets’ red glare, ended with Tommy John surgery. He made five starts in 2011. The 2012 Nats won the East, but Strasburg worked his final inning on Sept. 7. The Nationals shuttered a healthy pitcher for the playoffs. The belief was that team-builder Boras chose his client’s future over the immediate greater good. The baseball industry was apoplectic.
The Nationals, who led MLB with 98 wins, lost in the LDS to the Cardinals, who’d edged the Braves in the Infield Fly game. The Nats would win the division again in 2014, 2016 and 2017, losing in Round 1 each time. It was as if their 2012 hubris – “We’ll have plenty of chances to win it all” – had angered the baseball gods. But then …
With Harper gone to Philly, the 2019 Nats entered the playoffs as a wild card. Washington rallied to beat Milwaukee in the play-in. It upset the 106-win Dodgers in the LDS. The East-winning Braves would have opened the NLCS at Truist Park against a division rival they’d beaten 11 times in 19 tries, but they were undone by the Cardinals. The Nats swept St. Louis by an aggregate score of 20-6.
Entering October 2019, Strasburg had worked three postseason games. He logged three vital innings in relief in the win-or-else game against the Brewers. He went at least six innings in his subsequent five starts. His team won every game he pitched. Over 36-1/3 postseason innings, his ERA was 1.98. The Nats won it all. At 31, Strasburg was the World Series MVP.
He has worked 31-1/3 innings since. He made one start in 2022, on June 9. It would be his final game. The Post reported Thursday that Strasburg is retiring.
His many injuries stretched beyond his right arm. Diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, he had a rib and two neck muscles removed. He didn’t come to training camp this spring. He has seldom been seen at Nationals Park this season. He has, the Post reports, severe nerve damage.
The greatest pitching prospect ever will leave with 113 wins, an ERA of 3.24 and a WAR of 32.3. He finished in the top 10 of Cy Young voting three times, never above third. Only twice over 13 years did he top 185 innings. He had a stellar career that, with better health, might have been a Hall of Fame career. Those sobering words yet again – “might have been.”
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