Nats’ management must look to history

I sat watching Game 5 of the NLDS between the Cardinals and Nationals–the Nats were poised to make their first trip to the NLCS since they’ve been in Washington. One strike, and the game would be over. But that’s not how it played out–over the next ten (or so) minutes, I witnessed one of the greatest comebacks I’ve ever seen in baseball.

And as much as I love watching a good comeback (and that’s something the Cardinals have been amazing at these past few years), I was pulling for Washington. After spending so much time in the basement of the NL East, after so many seasons of struggle, it was nice to see them have success. But alas, the Cardinals completed the comeback, and quickly closed out the game in the bottom half of the 9th. Just like that, the Nationals’ season was over.

Many criticize Mike Rizzo (Washington’s GM) for shutting down ace Stephen Strasburg at such a crucial time–and this criticism is warranted. I understand the reasoning behind benching Strasburg. It would be unfortunate to see your ace suffer a catastrophic injury, and making him sit prevents that possibility. But why would anyone choose to sit their best starter heading into the postseason? Aces are supposed to be the anchor that you can rely on to start in big games, and Game 5 of a best-of-five series seems like a pretty big game to me. That’s not to say that Gio Gonzalez pitched terribly yesterday–he lasted five innings, giving up three earned runs off of five hits. And there’s no assurance that starting Strasburg would have given the Nats the W, but the outcome certainly could have been much different.

The biggest problem I have with Rizzo’s choice is that it’s reflective of the strategy and attitude of the organization as a whole. The Nationals were not playing to win the World Series this year–if they were, Strasburg would have pitched. No, the Nationals were playing for next season instead. The entire idea behind the limit they placed on Strasburg was to preserve his arm for next year. But this kind of strategy doesn’t work in the postseason (as we saw last night). Successful postseason teams play for today–they play for the moment, and do anything necessary to win. Remember when the Yankees used a three-man rotation throughout the playoffs in 2009? Having your starters pitch on short rest certainly runs the risk of injury, but the strategy worked: They won their 27th World Series.

The Nationals seems to be banking on the idea that they’ll be good for the next five seasons, and that their time to win championships will be then. And I’ll bet that the Nationals will be pretty good over the next few seasons, provided that they don’t lose any of their players to free agency (speaking of which, if I’m Strasburg, I’m gone as soon as I’m a free agent). But as history shows us, teams can’t always count on future success. Remember the 2001 season? The Seattle Mariners won 116 games that year–tied with the 1906 Chicago Cubs for the most in MLB history (more on the Cubs shortly). In the postseason, the Mariners ultimately fell to my beloved Yankees, four games to one. That Mariners team looked like one poised to make many deep playoff runs in the coming seasons–success often builds upon success, and they had the right pieces to win a championship. It’s now 2012, and the Mariners haven’t made the playoffs since.

The 2003 Chicago Cubs mirror the 2012 Nationals, in a way. The Cubs were a struggling franchise who put together a nice season and won the NL Central, and found themselves in the NLCS against the Florida Marlins. After falling in seven games, they’ve once again struggled–even when they made the playoffs in 2007 and 2008, they were promptly swept in the NLDS. Those 2003 Cubs were a team that many people thought would contend in future years–they were young, talented, and found ways to win games.

In baseball, you can’t count on success in future seasons. It’s true that many successful teams are successful over consecutive years, but it’s hardly a guarantee. Truly great teams will win by any means necessary–pinch-hitting a clutch player in a key spot, putting a starter in as a relief pitcher (as the Diamondbacks did in ’01). I’d be hard-pressed to find an example of where a team won a championship by benching one of their best players. Alas, Washington’s magical season is over, and the players, management, and fans can only hope that they have a fate better than the Mariners and Cubs–and if they don’t, this season will be nothing more than one big wasted opportunity.

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