Stephen Strasburg has had an odd major league career. He arrived in 2010 and became the biggest story in baseball, a former No. 1 overall pick who was more than living up to the hype. Then he missed a year to Tommy John surgery, returned somewhat lesser, was barred by his own team from the 2012 playoffs and has battled injuries ever since. But despite the ailments and the controversies, he has also been, when healthy, one of the best pitchers in baseball, making him maybe the most successful disappointment in baseball history.
This year has been Strasburg’s best yet. He posted a 2.52 ERA and NL-best 2.72 FIP while throwing 175 1/3 innings, second most of any year of his career. Quietly, the 29-year-old righty has put himself in position to finish in the top five of NL Cy Young voting.
But in 2017, as in the two seasons before it, Strasburg has been the Nationals’ No. 2 starter, slotted behind two-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer. He hasn’t been asked to start Opening Day or Game 1 of the playoffs, hasn’t been relied on as the dominant stopper at the top of the rotation. His status as merely the second-best guy on the staff has shielded him from the expectations of an ace and perhaps dampened the whispers that, despite a great career, he hasn’t matched his rookie-year hype.
Until, that is, Scherzer hurt his hamstring in his final start of the regular season, an injury that, according to manager Dusty Baker, will “probably” cause him to miss his scheduled start against the Cubs on Wednesday. If Scherzer is indeed sidelined, Strasburg will take the mound at Nationals Park in Game 1 with a chance to establish the marquee moment his career has thus far lacked. If he pitches that contest, he will likely be in line for the winner-take-all Game 5 days later. The NLDS could very well hinge on how Strasburg performs.
As if that’s not enough weighing on Strasburg, the veteran will seek to finally exorcise the legacy of Washington’s fateful decision to shut him down in September 2012, leaving him to only watch as the Nats lost a five-game series in the NLDS. That situation, plus an elbow injury last fall, means that Strasburg’s only postseasons start was a five-inning, one-earned-run outing in 2014, in a game (and series) his team lost. When it comes to October baseball, Strasburg is known more for not pitching than he is for pitching.
Many of the knocks on Strasburg are not fair. If he hasn’t lived up to expectations, that’s only because most expectations for him were unreasonable. He is already arguably the best pitcher ever selected No. 1 overall, and he ranks eighth among all pitchers in WAR since 2012. Simply put, he is a stud. But because of his recurring injury problems and because of the mania that surrounded him as a young player and because sometimes fans and media are unfair, he has a lot on the line this month. How he pitches in October will go a long way toward establishing whether he is recognized as one of the top pitchers in baseball or lamented as a guy who’s never quite as good as you want him to be.
Washington fans don’t ask for much. In 12 seasons and three previous playoff appearances, their team has never escaped the NLDS. The postseason defeats they have suffered have all involved excruciating close games and tough-to-stomach endings that make the failures seem all the more acute. For that reason, if the Nationals can simply beat the Cubs in a best-of-five to reach the NLCS, the season will feel like a triumph. And with Scherzer potentially out—or at least hobbled—Strasburg is the guy who will have to get them there.