WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. — When did all things begin to seem possible for the Washington Nationals? Before the days when four National League East division titles felt painful? You know, before the hump?
It was the month of June, in 2009 and 2010, when the future seemed limitless, when Washington’s baseball was finally connected to greatness and glory.
Stephen Strasburg was greatness. Bryce Harper was glory.
“I remember the first time I saw him play,” Strasburg said. “He had just turned 15. He was playing on this travel team I had played before I went to college. I was staying in my grandmother’s old house right down the road. The coach said, ‘Come on over.’ He was there playing. He was pretty good. That was well before I knew we were going to be teammates.”
They would be more than teammates, though. These were the two building blocks on which championship baseball in Washington would be constructed, the two number one back-to-back draft picks in all of baseball, two of the most heralded young stars of their time.
Now — six years after they first took the field together — it appears that this may be the final year of the Nationals’ tag team of dreams and their last chance together to fulfill what at one time seemed to be their destiny, with Harper in the final year of his contract and likely heading for free agency.
AUDIO: Washington Nationals Manager Dave Martinez with Thom Loverro
Harper, 25, met with the media Monday and declared questions about his future beyond 2018 are off limits. So that leaves his teammates to ponder a future without Harper — and few are more connected to Harper by circumstances than the 29-year-old Strasburg, though they are not particularly close.
“For the most part we do our own thing here,” Strasburg said. “There is a little bit of an age gap. I’ve always been a fan of Bryce. Our wives get along. And obviously we have the same agent (Scott Boras). I think for the most part, especially now that I have kids … I’m sure Bryce will someday have kids, too …. that’s a big difference, I don’t really have a lot of free time and stuff. He is in Vegas. I’m in San Diego. I played with a lot of older guys from Vegas who know Bryce. We have a lot of mutual friends.
Personality-wise, they couldn’t be more different. Strasburg is quiet, reserved and avoids the limelight. Harper is a showman who has embraced the attention ever since he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was 16.
But they will forever be connected in the history of Washington baseball.
Strasburg, drafted No. 1 in 2009, made his historic major league debut on June 8, 2010: a 14-strikeout, two-run performance before a national audience against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
One day earlier, the Nationals had drafted Harper.
But it wouldn’t be until Harper made his major league debut on April 28, 2012, in Los Angeles against the Dodgers that the dual foundation of Nationals baseball would finally be on the same major league roster.
“Everything started at that point,” Strasburg said. “Yeah, I think the numbers are there, wins and losses purely, everything changed, with 2012 being our first real year together. They get Gio (Gonzalez). They had signed Jay Dub (Jayson Werth) the year before. Bryce came up a month and a half in.”
As the Nationals marched to their first NL East division crown, the road ahead with these two young stars seemed destined to be lined with championships. But a lot has gotten in the way since. This was the year of the Strasburg Tommy John recovery, which kept him out of the division series against St. Louis. Finally, when the two would play together in the division series against San Francisco in 2014, Strasburg got just one start and lost the opener to Jake Peavy, while Harper had a big series, with three home runs and four RBI in the four-game loss.
They would not play together in the 2015 division series against Los Angeles. Strasburg was on the disabled list with right elbow soreness. Harper struggled all season and into the postseason, with four hits in 17 at bats against the Dodgers. Then came last year’s bizarre series loss to the Cubs. In two starts, Strasburg was outstanding, allowing just two runs and six hits over 14 innings in two starts, while striking out 22. Harper, coming off a knee injury, struggled again, with just four hits in 19 at bats.
Now it may be coming to an end.
“I think he (Harper) likes it here,” Strasburg said. “I think he likes the clubhouse. But that’s not everything. You have to think about your family and what’s best for your family. I’m not going to fault him one way or the other. He’s going to make the best decision for his family and that’s the most important thing.”
Perhaps nothing illustrates the differences between the two than the paths they chose. Strasburg told Boras, who is known for bringing his clients to free agency, that he wanted to stay in Washington and signed a seven-year, $175 million contract extension in 2016.
Seeing the opportunities that may await Harper — who could possibly be a $500 million free agent — does Strasburg have any regrets?
“I’m still happy with the decision, absolutely,” said Strasburg, who is entering his ninth season in Washington with 184 starts, an 84-51 record and a 3.07 career ERA. “I enjoy this clubhouse. I enjoy my teammates. When you commit to the teammates and the core group of guys and you’re going to make that commitment, that’s great. But that was a decision I made at that time — to have the chance to win for many years. So we’ll see what happens there.”
If it does happen, it will probably be without his fellow cornerstone Washington Nationals franchise No. 1.
⦁ Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays, available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.