Stras carrying weight of World ... he's used to it

October 28th, 2019

HOUSTON -- It’s in ’s hands -- the season, the Series and, soon, the contractual opt-out decision. Perhaps there’s something poetic about that for a Washington Nationals team that first turned its franchise fortunes around by calling Strasburg’s name in the Draft.

From the Nats’ perspective, Game 6 of this World Series against the Astros is Strasburg’s game; his chance to outduel ; his chance to get this thing to a Game 7 that might involve ; his chance to reclaim the mojo that once manifested in a 2-0 lead, before the Series shifted eastward and, for Washington, southward.

It’s a jarring and ominous thing to lose three straight on this stage without ever holding a lead in any of those games, especially at home. But as the Nationals stare at a 3-2 deficit heading into Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park, their continued faith rests in the promise of a Strasburg start -- an event once lovingly and glowingly referred to as “Strasmas.”

“Pitching at this point in the season, it's a tremendous honor,” Strasburg said. “I'm going to go out there and compete and give it everything I have.”

That’s what he’s given the Nats from the beginning of his arguably underrated career. Going back to his 2010 rookie year, Strasburg’s 130 ERA+ (or 30 percent better than league average) is the eighth-best in the Majors among those with at least 1,000 innings pitched. By any realistic measure, his career has been a success, with a 2019 season that has been among his best efforts yet. He’s now amassed 237 innings with a 3.15 ERA and a 5.02 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

But of course, in giving his “everything,” Strasburg still hasn’t satiated those who heaved Hall of Fame-caliber expectations upon him before he ever threw a pitch in the big leagues. Those expectations were unfair but understandable, because the baseball world had never seen a pitching prospect like Strasburg, and his dazzling debut darn near a decade ago (June 8, 2010, to be exact) only upped the unattainable ante.

Strasburg was such a sensation that, when he made his first career road start four days after the debut, the Cleveland Indians set up a merchandise stand to sell his jersey in their ballpark. Where there is buildup, there is backlash, and so it was that very day, when the legendary Bob Feller observed the Strasburg phenomenon and remarked, “Call me when he wins his 100th game.”

Well, the lovably crusty Feller wasn’t around to see it, but Strasburg did win his 100th game in June, and his track record and current profile are almost certainly strong enough to justify ripping up a contract that currently guarantees him $100 million over the next four seasons.

At bare minimum, Strasburg could use his opt-out as leverage to get the deferred money in his deal in “real time,” so to speak. But knowing what we know about the price of premier pitching, Strasburg could go for more. If the negative energy surrounding the Yankees or Dodgers compels those clubs to get into the premier starting-pitching market, and teams like the Angels or Padres make the level of investment their fans are pining for, market conditions are lining up for Strasburg to be a beautiful, well-compensated backup plan for clubs that don’t land Gerrit Cole.

That said, Strasburg’s general aversion to the spotlight and the value he places on comfort and familiarity might lead him to re-up with Washington on an extension.

For now, this start, this opportunity, is the fulfillment of the Nationals’ wildest wishes for Strasburg way back when he was a 20-year-old kid with a fiery fastball, killer curve, nasty changeup and pinpoint control of all three pitches. In a sport that can offer so many vagaries in terms of what teams prioritize or identify at the amateur level, Strasburg was a rare thing -- an absolutely no-doubt-about-it No. 1. (Lightning just so happened to strike twice when they got Bryce Harper a year later. When it came to the Major League wins and losses, the Nats sure picked a good time to have a bad time.)

“We felt all along [Strasburg] was going to be a quick-to-the-big-leagues guy,” Nats GM Mike Rizzo said recently. “We saw in him a very focused and determined demeanor.”

That’s what they expect to see again on Tuesday night -- the ultimate “Strasmas.” And at this moment of reflection, as we wait to see if Strasburg can extend the 2019 season for one more day, it’s amusing to remember how close he came to pitching for a club from a different Washington. As we documented earlier this year in’s “Full Account” -- a deep dive podcast on the 2009 Draft -- the Mariners were in position for the No. 1 pick going into the final weekend of the 2008 season, having lost 14 of 15 games. But somehow, they swept the A’s behind some huge hits from unlikely candidates in Kenji Johjima and Yuniesky Betancourt. The Nats, on the other hand, got swept by the Phillies in their final series of the season to fall to No. 30 in the standings and rise to No. 1 in the draft.

They didn’t have to deliberate much on Strasburg. And one can’t overstate what he meant to this franchise at that moment and beyond.

“It was the start of the new era of the Nationals,” Rizzo said. “It gave the fanbase a lot of hope. It gave the organization kind of a jumpstart, and it gave our scouting and player development departments energy. It was something that showed a new ownership that scouting and development is paramount. After the signing of Strasburg, we got an influx of revenues to go out and get the best and the brightest scouts and player development guys. I think you see the results of that each and every year since.”

So yes, it is only fitting that, with the Nationals’ first appearance in the Fall Classic coming down to an elimination game, Strasburg is getting the ball. Ten years ago, his arrival pulled this team out of the depths and into the light.

Can he do it again Tuesday night?