LOS ANGELES -- For some reason, Stephen Strasburg can’t escape the same few topics.
Before his start in Game 2 of the National League Division Series, Strasburg was asked about his status as a transcendent pitching prospect. After a Nationals win in Game 4 put Strasburg on tap for the biggest start of his career, he was asked about the infamous shutdown in 2012. They follow Strasburg everywhere he goes, in part reminders of the impossible expectations his career was burdened with from the start.
“You realize that the expectations are always going to be there,” Strasburg said. “I think it's pretty obvious that the expectations that people had for me from early on were a little insane.”
In Game 5 of the NLDS on Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium, Strasburg has the opportunity to cement another part of his legacy. A win would knock off a 106-win Dodgers team and put the Wild Card-winning Nationals into the NL Championship Series for the first time in franchise history. After so many years of hearing about how he didn’t pitch, or couldn’t pitch, or hadn’t quite lived up to the hype, Strasburg could be the one to finally pitch the Nationals into the next round.
Even though the Nationals trailed, 2-1, after their loss in Game 3, they knew the series was far from over. Max Scherzer did his part to propel Washington to a 6-1 win in Monday's Game 4, and there’s no one the Nationals (winless in three previous NLDS Game 5s) would rather have on the mound more than Strasburg.
Because in October, Strasburg has been at his best. He has a career postseason ERA of 0.64, the lowest in postseason history among starting pitchers with at least 25 innings. He has double-digit strikeouts in three of his first four postseason starts. He carried a perfect game into the fifth inning and struck out 10 in six innings of one-run ball against the Dodgers in Game 2. He has pitched twice when the Nats were facing elimination -- Game 4 of the 2017 NLDS and last Tuesday’s Wild Card Game -- and he hasn’t allowed a run in 10 innings, striking out 16 with only two walks.
It almost feels cruel that the world was robbed -- first by the Nationals in 2012 and again by injuries in ‘16 -- of playoff Strasburg for so long.
“I think it's something that you train for, you dream about as a kid, and you want to have those opportunities to just see how your stuff stacks up,” Strasburg said. “When you're in the moment, it's a great feeling, just going out there and competing against the best.”
For years, people in D.C. questioned whether Strasburg would wilt in these moments.
They would never have imagined Strasburg interrupting his routine to come out of the bullpen in the Wild Card Game, and then take the ball again with two days' rest and dominate the best lineup in the NL. But people around the Nationals say they have seen a different Strasburg this season.
Strasburg has become open to talk and dealing with expectations. He continues to be a mentor to the Nationals' young pitchers. He smiles in the dugout more often (though, not a lot). His teammates have embraced him with dance parties and an impromptu group hug. There are still moments where the guarded and introverted Strasburg would rather keep to himself, but he has shown a different side of himself publicly.
“I think the last three or four years, Stephen has really turned the corner as a professional,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, his teammate since Strasburg’s debut in 2010, said. “He came up with so much hype. He was so young. He’s matured so much over the last three or four years. Things that used to bother him don’t bother him anymore. Obviously, he’ll take the ball and do whatever you want; he’s such a competitor. Can't say enough about him as a person.”
This start for Strasburg and this postseason also come with some uncertainty. It could be his last in a Nationals uniform. He carries an opt-out clause in his contract that, if exercised after this season, has the ability to alter the free-agent market. After such an excellent year that will garner votes for the NL Cy Young Award, he would likely benefit financially if he does so.
Strasburg led the NL in innings pitched, trailed only Jacob deGrom and Scherzer in WAR for pitchers, ranked in the top five in FIP and finished top 10 in ERA. More importantly for the Nationals, Strasburg did all that when they needed him most in the second half -- as the club was chasing a postseason spot and while Scherzer was on the injured list, rehabbing from back and shoulder injuries.
This entire season has, in part, been Strasburg’s chance to rewrite the script of his career, so perhaps he can use this start in the postseason to finish the job.
“I try not to look in the past, try not to look in the future, really just try and be in the moment,” Strasburg said. “Once you start thinking about how things could have been or what things might happen, it takes your focus away from what your job is.”