Is there reason for hope in Washington DC?

storapse@aol.comJuly 26, 2012 

There is something special going on in Washington, and it has nothing to do with nasty politics.

While the inept Congress continues on a 20-year-plus losing streak, D.C.'s baseball team, packed with talented young players, is piling up victories ina bid to make the World Series.

Washington has not hosted a major league postseason baseball game in 79 years. Fans in the nation's capital went 34 years without a team -- 1971-2005. The void was filled when the Montreal franchise moved back into the United States.

Now the Nationals, in their seventh year, are poised to make the National League playoffs. Not only that, Washington is on track to post the best record in the entire NL.

Pretty good for a team that finished under .500 in 2011.

The key to the Nationals success thus far is pitching. Led by Stephen Strasburg (10-4), Gio Gonzalez (13-5) and Jordan Zimmerman (7-6), the Nats lead both leagues with a 3.26 team earned run average.

Strasburg, who just turned 24, was tabbed as a "can't miss" prospect when he was the top overall draft choice in baseball in 2009. He hasn't disappointed, but he needed Tommy John surgery and missed a year.

This has led to a controversial decision on the part of Washington management, which could lead to shutting down their best pitcher around playoff time.

Prior to this season, Nats General Manager Mike Rizzo indicated that Strasburg would have an innings limit somewhere between 160 and 170.

Strasburg is averaging 5.9 innings per start. At that current pace, he'll get to the cut-off mark with 15 more starts if he pitches every fifth game. That would be sometime in mid to late September, a week or two before the playoffs begin.

But that number may no longer apply. Rizzo, who told ESPN last week that he and he alone will make the call, says "There is no magic number. It will be the eye test. (Manager) Davey Johnson won't decide, and ownership won't decide. It will be the general manager, and that's me."

While it will be easy to question Rizzo's final decision, no one can question his forthrightness. You don't find many like this in sports management today and you certainly don't find them in Congress.

"When we signed Stephen, I made a promise to his parents that I would take care of him," Rizzo said. "I told them we would always do what's best for him. This is a kid who has never pitched more than 123 innings in a year."

If Strasburg is shut down before the postseason, it will certainly weaken Washington's chances to advance in the playoffs. There are bound to be some angry fans, who will feel cheated.

But Rizzo is weighing immediate success with the franchise's long-term future.

Strasburg says he will fight any decision to end his season prematurely.

"They'll have to rip the ball out of my hands," he told ESPN last week, "and I mean it."

Rizzo, who joined the Nationals as assistant GM shortly after the franchise moved to Washington in 2005, has done a marvelous job in building this team. He has 11 core players under contract until 2015, including standout third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and outfielder Bryce Harper, the 19-year-old rookie phenom who has become one of the most exciting players in the game.

When manager Jim Riggleman abruptly resigned in June 2011, Rizzo made a bold move and named Davey Johnson to replace him. Johnson, who won the World Series as New York Mets skipper in 1986 and had not managed in 12 years, has been a perfect fit.

Rizzo has pulled this off with a middle of the road payroll of $84 million. This falls far below the New York Yankees ($197 mil.) Philadelphia ($174) and Boston ($173). It is even less than the second worst team in baseball, the Chicago Cubs.

So with a track record like that it is hard to question any of Rizzo's decisions.

But the one he faces with Strasburg is perhaps the toughest yet.

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