HOUSTON -- They needed him in 2009, when they were a flailing franchise in possession of the first pick of the MLB Draft. And they needed him a decade later, when they handed him the ball for the win-or-go-home Game 6 of this World Series against the Astros.
Stephen Strasburg stepped up in both instances. He was a no-doubt-about-it No. 1 pick, one of the greatest prospects the game had ever seen, and, over time, he’s proven to be one of its premier pitchers. Now, with two winning efforts in a Fall Classic that went the distance, Strasburg was a suitable selection for the Willie Mays World Series Most Valuable Player presented by Chevrolet.
“It’s just surreal,” Strasburg said after the Nationals’ 6-2 victory in the Game 7 clincher at Minute Maid Park. “And just being able to do it with this group of guys, it’s something special. Every one of those guys, we all stuck together.”
The first pitcher to win the MVP honor since the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner in 2014 and the 29th overall, Strasburg won Games 2 (six innings, two runs, seven strikeouts, one walk) and 6 (8 1/3 innings, two runs, seven strikeouts, five hits, two walks) -- both on the road. With an opt-out decision looming and four years and $100 million on the table, he loaded up on leverage with this pristine postseason showing, only adding to the intrigue of the contract clause.
Strasburg’s extended Game 6 effort, at a moment when the Nats were trailing 3-2 in the best-of-seven set, made him the first hurler since Curt Schilling in Game 5 of the 1993 World Series to toss at least 8 1/3 innings while not allowing more than two runs in a potential Fall Classic elimination game for his team.
For his postseason career, the 31-year-old Strasburg has a 1.46 ERA that stands as the third lowest in postseason history among those with at least 40 innings, trailing only Hall of Famers Mariano Rivera (0.70) and Sandy Koufax (0.95).
The above is affirmation of everything the Nationals believed about Strasburg when they followed the sure industry consensus, plucked him out of San Diego State and gave him a record-breaking four-year, $15.1 million contract from the start. They later signed him to a mega-extension in 2016.
Strasburg became the first No. 1 overall pick to win the World Series MVP -- a fact that pleasantly surprised Nats general manager Mike Rizzo.
“He’s been near and dear to my heart,” a champagne-soaked Rizzo said after receiving that news. “He’s grown so much as a person and as a pitcher. When we first drafted him, he was a stuff guy, more of a thrower than a pitcher. Now, he’s a complete pitcher, a pillar in our community and a leader on this ballclub -- a guy we lean on in critical situations.”
Strasburg proved ready to be leaned upon. He is the first pitcher to go 5-0 in a single postseason. Along the way, Strasburg struck out 47 batters, tying with Gerrit Cole for the second most in a postseason in MLB history (Schilling holds the record with 56 in 2001). Strasburg had an 11.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio, third best in postseason history behind only Cliff Lee (23.5 in 2010) and Josh Beckett (17.5 in '07), according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
The famous September shutdown of 2012, aimed at protecting Strasburg’s valuable and surgically repaired right arm at a young age, served as one of the decade’s largest “what-ifs.” But it’s officially deep in the rearview after Strasburg’s massive contribution to the franchise’s first World Series run.
“I buried it a week after 2012,” Rizzo said. “But people seem to keep bringing it up a lot. It was something we did before Stras, we did it since Stras, it’s just the way we do our Tommy John protocol. It helps us in the long run to care more about our players than other teams do. That’s the way we do it here. We care about our players. Sometimes, you have to take a step sideways to go forward. If it’s in the benefit of a player’s health and wherewithal, we do it.”
Added Strasburg: “It's so long ago, and I think you try not to look in the past and you try not to look in the future.”
So what, exactly, does the future hold for Strasburg and the Nationals?
Because of the built-in opt-out, it might be time to negotiate a new deal, or else Strasburg has the option of exploring the open market.
“That’s business for tomorrow,” Rizzo said. “We’ll worry about it tomorrow. He’s one of the best pitchers in the league, and I’m sure he’ll get paid like it.”
If this was actually the end of Strasburg's decade-long tenure with the Nats’ organization, it was a heck of a way to go out. But if this turns out to be a career-long stay in the nation’s capital, this Series storyline was a moment for falling in love all over again.