If Bryce Harper was the chosen one among hitters, Stephen Strasburg was the chosen one among pitchers. In 2012, for the first time, the Washington Nationals had both men on their roster.
And, for the first time since migrating from Canada in 2005, the Nationals had a winning record. They won their division, with visions of a decade of greatness to come, anchored by Harper and Strasburg.
That was Strasburg’s first full season after Tommy John surgery, and the Nationals considered it more prudent to shut him down in September rather than extend him through the playoffs. If they did not win a pennant that year, surely they would in the near future.
Harper is gone now, and Strasburg could join him in departing this fall. A parade has not come to Washington.
On Friday, though, Strasburg more than did his part to keep hope alive. He carried a perfect game into the fifth inning and tamed the Dodgers through six innings, lifting the Nationals to the 4-2 victory that tied this Division Series at one game apiece.
In his six innings, he faced 21 batters, struck out 10 and walked none, recording his second postseason victory in four days.
The Dodgers bunched two of three hits in scoring their lone run against him: a pinch-hit single by Matt Beaty with one out in the sixth inning, followed by a double by Joc Pederson and a sacrifice fly by Justin Turner.
That was all for Strasburg, after 85 pitches. He had thrown 34 pitches of relief over three innings Tuesday in winning the National League wild-card game.
“I’m very routine-oriented, and I would say my younger self would be a little bit alarmed by it,” Strasburg said, “but now, at this point in my career, it’s just another challenge.”
Strasburg has emerged as one of the finest postseason pitchers of this generation — or, at least, one of the finest first-round pitchers. He has faced 107 batters without giving up a home run.
He has an earned-run average of 0.64 in five postseason games, with four walks and 38 strikeouts in 28 innings. The only pitchers with a lower ERA through their first five postseason games: Hall of Famers Waite Hoyt (0.26 in 1921-22) and Christy Mathewson (0.38 from 1905-11), according to Stats LLC.
“I just learned over the years that pressure’s a funny thing,” Strasburg said, “and I think it’s something that you have complete control over. There’s obviously a lot of expectations, there’s a lot of excitement in games, but I really tried over the years to train my mind into thinking that every single game is just as important.”
The Nationals never did win a postseason series, let alone a pennant, with Harper. They won the National League East four times, and they lost in the first round every time — to the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012, the San Francisco Giants in 2014, the Dodgers in 2016 and the Chicago Cubs in 2017.
Might the Nationals have had their best chance in 2012? Davey Johnson, the Nationals’ manager that year, suggested as much in his book, released last year.
“I felt we would have gone to the World Series with Strasburg in the rotation during the playoffs,” Johnson wrote.
Three days after the Nationals used Max Scherzer as the starter and got the victory from Strasburg in relief, they used Strasburg as the starter and got a critical inning from Scherzer in relief. The Division Series is even, and the Nationals’ dream of an NL Championship Series lives on.