MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — If the Nationals’ 2011 season was meant to serve as the final vehicle to build anticipation for the future they’ve been talking about — and saying is coming — since 2005, their last act of the year was the ultimate cliffhanger.
In the final game before what is shaping up to be the most optimistic offseason in the Nationals’ brief history, there was Stephen Strasburg: closing down Sun Life Stadium with 3-1 win and a simply dominant performance.
Six innings, one hit, two walks and 10 strikeouts. Most importantly, he threw his breaking ball for strikes. Of the 16 curveballs he threw Wednesday, 11 of them were strikes.
Even he was screaming for the 2012 season to begin.
“I feel like I’m just getting started,” Strasburg said. “I had to prove [to myself] that I could throw my breaking ball for a strike. That was something that I was searching for this last month.”
In disposing of the Florida Marlins and ruining their going-away party from Sun Life Stadium, Strasburg needed 79 pitches to lead the Nationals to their 80th victory of the season. It’s a plateau they have not reached since the team’s inaugural year in Washington — and even that was done with a team that fell off almost completely down the stretch.
Since then, the win totals dwindled. Two years ago, they were a 59-win team that finished 34 games out of first place.
This year, with an 80-81 record, is different.
“I think the bar has been raised,” said Nationals general manger Mike Rizzo. “We still came in third place which is not where we want to be but we see progress. We feel pretty good and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished and where we’ve come to this point.”
It began symbolic that the Nationals’ final game of the season was won with the one man considered the linchpin to the entire operation. While they’ve ridden the roller-coaster that 2011 has brought — working through extended losing streaks, extended winning streaks, the abrupt resignation of their manager and the tumult that followed — Strasburg was largely out of sight, but never out of mind.
As soon as Strasburg’s ulnar collateral ligament blew last August, the 2011 season was never going to be all that it could have been for the Nationals. While he toiled away in Florida, though, the Nationals did something else. They succeeded more than they had in all but one season of their existence in the Nation’s Capital.
They established starting position players at seven of the eight spots — only three of whom will be over the age of 30 when the season begins next April. Then they watched Wednesday as one of those players, shortstop Ian Desmond, drove in two runs to give them and Strasburg a lead they would not relinquish. Drew Storen’s final pitch of the season, a nasty slider to strike out Logan Morrison for his 43rd save, ensured them of that.
“That’s more than a teaser,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson.
What began symbolic ended as a tangible indicator of things to come. Strasburg was easily the best he’s been in his return from Tommy John surgery — despite issuing his first two walks of the season. It broke up a 117-batter walk-free streak that dated back to last season but it was a minor blemish on an otherwise superb final showing. He set down the final 13 batters he faced and hit 98 mph on the stadium’s radar gun on several occasions with his fastball.
“Now I’m pretty much done with the rehab process,” Strasburg said. “Now I’m healthy.”
In a season filled with positive signs and with talented youth seizing their opportunity to establish themselves as major leaguers, that was perhaps the most positive of them all. When pitchers and catchers report to Viera, Fla., in less than five months, Strasburg will be there, ready to go, right along with the rest of his teammates.
“We know how good we can be,” Desmond said. “We know what we’ve got to do.”
“We start thinking about 2012 on the plane ride home,” Rizzo said.