Exactly a decade ago, were you one of the lucky 40,315 fans in a sold-out Nationals Park to witness the “debut”? What Nats fan could forget June 8, 2010 when Stephen Strasburg made his MLB debut for the Washington Nationals? It was electric at near 1.21 gigawatts. Fans stood and cheered for a team that never had a winning season because Strasburg represented winning in the future. For a team that looked like they were destined to lose 100-games every year before Stras arrived, hope came with him the day he was drafted. It took 3,431 days after his sparkling 14K debut for Stras to hoist up his MVP trophy as a World Series champion. His road is part of baseball’s way to put you up on a pedestal and then knock you off and see if you have the perseverance to dust yourself off and climb back up. Strasburg did just that.
The 2008 season was a disaster in so many ways for manager Manny Acta and his Washington Nationals. With two weeks remaining in the season, Nationals fans saw an opening for some optimism in being so woefully awful. If the Nationals were the worst team in the MLB standings, they would secure the first pick in the June 2009 amateur draft with Strasburg clearly the number one player in the country at that point in time.
Here were three quotes from scouts who spoke to Sports Illustrated at a college game where Strasburg was pitching for San Diego State prior to the draft.
“I’ve never seen anyone like him,” said one scout. “He’s a once-in-a-lifetime talent.”
“He doesn’t need the minor leagues,”added another scout. “He’s ready for the majors right now.”
“The only pitcher I could even compare him to is Roger Clemens in his heyday,” offered a third scout. “This is something you have to see to believe.”
With a week and a half remaining in the MLB season of 2008, it was known as “The Strasburg Sweepstakes” like a horse race to see who would win, place, and show. Three horses pulled away from the pack, and it was a three horse race at the photo-finish. Seattle was 57-94 and leading coming down the stretch, while the Nats and the Padres were an identical 58-93. The jockeys leading their horses all turned out to be familiar names in Nats history. The Padres manager was Bud Black, yes, that Bud Black. Seattle’s manager, John McLaren, had already been fired along with GM Bill Bavasi and Jim Riggleman was the Mariners interim manager to finish that 2008 season. Of course one day, both McLaren (ok, three days for McLaren) and Riggleman would be managers for the Nats with Riggleman at the helm for Strasburg’s debut. Black was almost Strasburg’s fifth manager if he had just said “Yes” to general manager Mike Rizzo’s offer to hire him.
Whoever sucked the worst would be in the pole position to draft Strasburg at numero uno. Former President of the Nats, Stan Kasten, always touted his plan of building from the draft and while he never said he was “tanking” it worked! “The Plan” as it was known was painful for Nats fans, and 2008 was the year of the struggling teams. The Mariners won their last three games of the season to sweep the A’s and lose 101 games, the Padres swept the Nats in a head-to-head series in the last few days of the season to lose 99 games, and the Nats won the Strasburg sweepstakes by a nose with 102 losses. If Kory Casto singled instead of striking-out in the bottom of the 13th inning against the Padres to open that series on September 19th, the Nats probably walk-off for the win as Lastings Milledge would have scampered home in a triumphant celebration — only in hindsight, Nats fans were so very fortunate that it never happened. The Padres would put a 5-spot on the Nats in the 14th inning and win that one (thank you Levale Speigner).
“In the simplest terms you’re welcome [Nats fans],” Casto said laughing about the tie-in to Strasburg due to that strikeout. He added that it evened out his 3-run pinch-hit home run to beat Seattle earlier in the season (fact check: he was correct). “Honestly I don’t remember [that strikeout]. That is awesome stuff. All those things that have to unfold chronologically is amazing.”
If Casto drove in that potential run, maybe it would have been the Mariners getting Strasburg and the Nats drafting Dustin Ackley or Donavan Tate or Tony Sanchez or Matt Hobgood. The divine line of destiny has a funny way of working out. Fans in San Diego were crushed as their hometown boy would go to the Nats, and they would sign a bust in Tate who never made it to the Majors. Strasburg certainly turned out to be Secretariat.
Teams are assembled like a puzzle with pieces put together from different places and times. Often times, pieces that don’t fit are forced into place. The best fits piece together from all sides. Maybe the best explanation came from the movie, Field of Dreams.
“There comes a time when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place and the universe opens itself up for a few seconds to show you what’s possible,” Ray Kinsella said in the movie.
Going from the scene of 19-31 by the way of bumpy roads to the promised land of beautiful places, clicked those cosmic tumblers together like a slot machine paying off the jackpot. The history of Washington baseball’s history of bumpy roads is a long drive. How did you feel about the Washington Nationals ten years ago? That team assembling for Spring Training in Viera, Florida was coming off of a 59-103 season. We received a good glimpse of Stephen Strasburg who was in Spring Training camp with no chance to make that 2010 Opening Day roster as the team wanted to control his service-time clock for team control. To real baseball people, there had to be optimism if you could see the big picture shaping up. Maybe one of the greatest 24 hours in Nats history was when Bryce Harper was drafted on June 7th, 2010 and less than 24 hours later Strasburg would make his electrified MLB debut at Nationals Park and pitched to battery mate and future Hall of Famer, Ivan Rodriguez.
Again, it was not all ups as there were plenty of downs with Strasburg. He was scratched from a July start in 2010 and left the game early on August 21, 2010 which prompted MASN TV analyst Rob Dibble to question Strasburg’s toughness, and he was fired shortly after that. Dibbles said, “Suck it up, kid. This is your profession. You chose to be a baseball player. You can’t have the cavalry come in and save your butt every time you feel a little stiff shoulder, sore elbow.” In Strasburg’s defense, it was more than a sore elbow as he snapped his ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow which required Tommy John surgery. He had TJ surgery and was back a year later to finish the last weeks of the 2011 season. The 2012 season was the year of the very controversial “shutdown”, and some in the media called Strasburg a wimp and some questioned his manhood and called him a chocha. After that, there were seasons of DL stints due to neck pain and back pain. Before Game 4 of the 2017 NLDS, Strasburg’s manager at the time, Dusty Baker, said that Strasburg would not pitch that crucial game because of flu-like symptoms caused by mold, but the story did not exactly fit what others were saying.
— James Wagner (@ByJamesWagner) October 10, 2017
But that tweet would soon be reversed as Strasburg’s agent Scott Boras would step-in and a rare pre-game statement from general manager Mike Rizzo added more mystery to exactly what transpired between the mixed messages. Why did Baker prematurely scratch Strasburg? It was like throwing him under the bus, and sportstalk radio the next morning was all over Strasburg. The Nats flagship radio station 106.7 on The Junkies show were none too kind to Strasburg. There was no rush to announce Strasburg’s status after the rain-out which bought the Nats an extra day to see how Stras felt the next day. Sourced reports to us at the time said Strasburg was very upset with Baker who went on to say that Stras could not pitch because he did not do his normal prep.
“We switched Stras’ antibiotics, gave him a higher dose, IV fluids throughout last evening, and this morning he felt much more like Stephen Strasburg. So he came into the clubhouse and went to the manager’s office and said that, ‘I want to start this game,’ ” Rizzo said before Game 4.
Some felt Rizzo was doing damage control to cover-up for Baker who ran his mouth, and like a miracle Strasburg rose from the ashes and threw another postseason gem and won the game. One report, which Rizzo denied, claimed Strasburg declined the chance to pitch in that game.
“The statement was inaccurate,” Rizzo said. “Did the media pressure him into starting this? I don’t think Stephen Strasburg cares about what the media thinks about him or says about him.”
Well, Strasburg could have been upset after being trashed in the media. Boras was upset and protecting his client’s reputation, and Rizzo seemed agitated. Strasburg would stave off elimination and force a Game 5 and maybe that solidified his legend as a big-game pitcher. Strasburg would go on to dominate in the 2019 postseason. He might not be mentioned in the same sentence as Howie Kendrick, Juan Soto, or Anthony Rendon — but should be. Stras was a beast and the Nats don’t win the World Series without him, and he doesn’t win it without them. A full team effort.
Building a team has finite boundaries. One decision usually impacts another. While perfection is only achieved in fantasy, ten years after Strasburg’s draft year, the Washington Nationals won the World Series. The growing pains were worth it after all it would seem as we can now take a more educated look in hindsight.
Some of those decisions come to a dead end, but some are on lines of divine destiny that have come forward like the decision to draft Ryan Zimmerman in 2005 has reached its sweet-16 year, and then you have the trade after the 2005 season to acquire Alfonso Soriano. When he signed with the Cubs after the 2006 season, the Nats draft compensation for him turned into Jordan Zimmermann who turned into draft compensation to choose Carter Kieboom in 2016. It is the gift that keeps on giving. Strasburg’s path to the Majors though was not the route of many who achieve greatness as he was not in the best shape of his life in high school and went undrafted. When you consider the Mariners and Padres botched their chances at landing Strasburg, they further helped the Nats current formation. There was the blockbuster trade between the Padres and Nats that landed Trea Turner and Joe Ross, and the trade deadline deal to get Roenis Elias and Hunter Strickland from the Mariners.
San Diego’s travel program had some incredible seasons in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s as the San Diego Sting produced not only All-Star Stephen Strasburg but also first rounder Mike Leake. That team included Thomas Neal and Brett Bochy who also were drafted. Strasburg was born in San Diego and grew up in the eastern suburb of Santee where he attended public school at West Hills High School. He wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school and settled on playing in college for Tony Gwynn‘s San Diego State Aztecs. Strasburg was transformed physically and mentally at San Diego State into the best collegiate pitcher in the country, and the rest is history for the number one overall pick of the 2009 draft by the Washington Nationals.
In Nats history though, Strasburg never fully assumed the position as the number one in the rotation. At times, he took a back seat to Max Scherzer who signed with the Nats for the 2015 rotation and for whatever reason Strasburg never looked right to start the season as he was a model of inconsistency until he was put on the DL after a neck injury on May 29th in which he would wear a 6.55 ERA at that moment and that isn’t a stats error or a typo. Strasburg was statistically near the worst starter in the MLB on June 1st of that season that spiraled out of control and ultimately led to manager Matt Williams departure after his contract expired. In a similar twist, Williams replacement was Dusty Baker who had a similar departure with whispers that the Game 4 debacle of 2017 was his undoing with the embarrassing predicament with Strasburg as the final straw. According to Baker, that was not true. In came manager Dave Martinez, and the rest is history as they say.
When the Nats were in another elimination game for Game 6 of the 2019 World Series, it was Strasburg to the rescue as he went 8 1/3 innings of 2-run baseball for his 5th win (an MLB record) of the postseason and the biggest win of his career. He absolutely etched his name alongside Sandy Koufax, Mariano Rivera and Madison Bumgarner as the best postseason pitchers in MLB history. Strasburg’s career postseason ERA is 1.46 in 55 1/3 innings. Bumgarner is a 2.11 in progress in his postseason history. Koufax retired with an 0.95 ERA over 57.0 innings in his postseason history. The Sandman’s postseason record was all in relief.
“Stras was doing Stras things up there,” Anthony Rendon said.
On Strasburg starts, they called them “Strasmas” when the mood was right and Stras was in the fan’s good graces at the time. They were a fickled bunch, but nothing like the media who turned on him in an instant. Ex-teammate, Mike Leake, from their youth travel ball team in San Diego told USA Today in 2010, “[Strasburg] was overweight, pouty and used to cry. He did a complete 180.” Obviously Leake should not have said that.
Strasburg will be a Nats for life player after he signed a $245 million free agent contract to stay in D.C. in which he will earn over $355 million in base salary for his career. His value to this franchise: Priceless. Instead of spending his offseasons in La Jolla, Rancho Santa Fe, or Torrey Pines back in San Diego, the Strasburgs chose Washington, D.C. as their permanent home to raise their family.
In the postseason, Martinez would use Strasburg as a reliever and a starter in key games where he would be a savior of sorts to resurrect this team that needed saving from their past. It made sense for a pitcher dubbed “Baseball Jesus” by his teammates before he ever made it to the Majors that he could be a savior after four seasons of postseason crushing losses that never got those teams to advance past the NLDS. It was probably unfair to put the weight of the world on the quiet kid from San Diego. If you believe baseball’s miracle of the Nats season in 2019 had some divine intervention, there are some baseball atheists who would tend to agree. Even if you are a non-believer in the baseball gods, something special happened in 2019 for the Washington Nationals, and Stephen Strasburg’s five wins were angelic in a way. Strasburg summed it up poetically.
“You have a great year, and you can run into a buzz saw,” Strasburg said. “Maybe this year we’re the buzz saw.”
So while you have to thank Seattle and San Diego for their place and show in the perfect photo finish race in a baseball trifecta, it is perfect that the kid who seemingly rose from the ashes would deliver the first Nationals win in a World Series. While ten years ago today was a day to remember, we have to also be thankful for all 102 losses in that painful 2008 season.