- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 16, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

On most afternoons, Stephen Strasburg sits in the clubhouse and spends time with his teammates. He plays cards, laughs, and rarely — if ever — glances at the televisions that incessantly remind them all that his season has an expiration date.

The Washington Nationals’ plan to shut down Strasburg has overtaken the conversation in baseball, even on the four days he does not pitch. It’s been debated, dissected, criticized and praised.

The world, it seems, is waiting for the day the Nationals take the ball out of their ace’s hand for the last time this season. But as the Nationals surge deeper into the playoff race, it’s doubtful the discussion will go away.

And that’s a shame.

Because for as much as Strasburg means to the Nationals, those fixating on his innings limit and shutdown are missing out on a great story. They’re missing out on the fact that the Nationals enter the final 44 games of the regular season with the best record in baseball because of the contributions of more than just one pitcher.

“Let me tell you something,” manager Davey Johnson said Wednesday, asked by a visiting reporter how the team will cope without Strasburg. “A lot of guys have been shut down [for us] this year, through injury. We’ll overcome it.”

Make no mistake, the day the Nationals remove Strasburg from their rotation is going to be a difficult one. Strasburg wants to be a part of the tantalizing future this season holds, and his teammates want him to be a part of it, too, even though they all understand the situation.

But that doesn’t mean the Nationals will simply collapse when that day comes.

Washington has won 17 of the 24 games Strasburg has started. But say that number was more average, like 10 of 24. Where would that leave the Nationals? They would be 66-52, still firmly in control of their playoff destiny as the wild card leaders and two games behind the Atlanta Braves in the National League East.

Privately, the players discuss the issue and appear prepared. They see the debate rage everywhere from ESPN to MLB Network on a daily basis. They don’t really mind. The more attention is paid to Strasburg, the more the rest of their talented team can fly under the radar toward the postseason. And there’s plenty left to get them there.

The pitchers have combined for a 3.27 ERA after 118 games. Strasburg (14-5, 2.91 ERA) has been a big part of that. But subtract him from the equation, and the remaining arms have a 3.32 ERA. That would still be the best in the major leagues, tied with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays. The starting rotation, even if only consisting of Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and Edwin Jackson, would combine for a 3.13 mark.

A few days ago in Phoenix, Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmermann sat for a television interview on the field. Two of the Nationals’ relievers, who have compiled a 2.72 ERA as a group, spotted the proceedings and busted in. “When have they ever gotten a big out?” they joked.

“You know,” Johnson said, “there are a lot of great pitchers on this ballclub. And they’re all having great years.”

But perhaps what might be even more comforting to Nationals fans than the pitching numbers is what the team’s offense has evolved into.

Once a unit devastated by injury and struggling to find consistent production as their pitchers thrived, the Nationals are now the fifth-best hitting team in the NL, have scored 105 more runs than they’ve allowed and are on the verge of finally having as much of their lineup healthy as they’ve had all season.

This, as Johnson said after each of the Nationals’ eight wins on their last road trip, is the fun part. With Strasburg, or without.

Instead of focusing on whether doom will come when his limit arrives, enjoy the rest of their story.

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