Nats Win Snakes’ Series

The Nationals defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks 5-3 at Nationals Park on Sunday, taking two games of a three game series. The game marked the second return of Stephen Strasburg following his stint on the D.L., and “the kid” pitched well, despite giving up a home run to Adam LaRoche and making an errant throw to first baseman Adam Dunn. “I was talking to Stephen a little bit ago. He said that it is the best he felt,” Nats’ skipper Jim Riggleman said, following the victory. “The ball was coming out of his hand good. Stras did a great job and gave us a chance to win.” The Nats trailed the D-Backs 3-1 into the bottom of the fourth, when slumping Josh Willingham shook loose from his doldrums and launched a pitch off of D-Backs starter Barry Enright to tie the game. The Nats won the game on a single by Ian Desmond, with Ryan Zimmerman providing an insurance homer. Typically, the Nats’ bullpen closed out their opponents, with Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett and Drew Storen shutting down the Arizona order.

The Ghost of Kerry Wood: Nats’ fans at the ballpark on Sunday probably didn’t get a chance to see Strasburg’s frustration with being lifted after pitching just five innings, but “the kid” was clearly angered by the move. Strasburg, mouth set and eyes flashing, sat the bench after the end of the fifth inning fuming. At least that’s what the fans at home saw, with Strasburg’s irritation coming in waves through the camera lens. Nats pitching czar Steve McCatty intervened with an explanation, speaking with animation as Strasburg shook his head on the bench. This isn’t the first time that Strasburg has been angered, though he never mentions it in any post game interview. But if Strasburg is angry it’s only because he has a right to be. And he’s not the only one. Jim Riggleman’s reputation as a manager with an early hook is well-earned. He’s got a shepard’s staff as big as Little Bo Peep (oops … well, let’s go with this version) — the result of his time as the manager of the North Side Drama Queens, when he oversaw the 1998 rookie campaign of strikeout king Kerry Wood.

The ghost of Kerry Wood seems ever-present with Riggleman, who coached the Slugs when they were going somewhere and the young Wood was the talk of baseball. The problem was that Wood had a raw elbow, with his ligaments tearing and bleeding everytime he threw. And in 1998, after a stint in the minors when he rarely threw even close to 100 pitches, Wood was carrying the load for a contending team — and throwing 115 to 120 pitches per game. Eventually (after sitting out the ’99 season with surgery, and pitching just so-so over the next three years), the elbow blew itself out for good and Wood, with successive stints in rehab, became a reliever. It was a loss, for Kerry Wood might have been, perhaps could have been (and maybe even should have been), one of the best starters in the game.

Riggleman, Wood’s skipper, blames himself. “If I had it to do over, I would do it differently,” he told the Washington Post back in March. “And we probably wouldn’t have gotten to the playoffs. If I had known what was going to happen, I wouldn’t have pitched him that much, period. But I would have caught a lot of grief. I caught a lot of grief as it was. We lost a lot of games where [Wood] came out after five or six innings. I was getting comments like, ‘C’mon, Riggs, leave him in.'” Wood disagrees: the ripping in his elbow had been happening for several years (he says) and it was bound to explode at some point. It was inevitable. “My elbow was going to go,” Wood told the Post. “If it didn’t go with [Riggleman] it would’ve gone with someone else. It was the way I was throwing, the stuff I had, the torque I was generating. It was a matter of time.”

Which is only to say that there’s a good reason why Jim Riggleman is as careful with Stephen Strasburg as he is. But Riggleman’s decision today — to sit Strasburg after the 5th — struck many fans as overly careful. After all, pitchers strain their arm, or throw out their shoulder, all the time. And not simply because they throw a lot of baseballs, or have a predisposition, or because they’re not on a pitch count. Pitchers blow out their arms because they’re pitchers. Wood understood this: in the end it didn’t matter how many pitches he threw, his “elbow was going to go” anyway. “It was a matter of time.” This is not an argument for having Rizzo, Riggleman & Company allow Strasburg to throw 110 to 120 pitches each and every game. It’s an argument for perspective and practicality — Stephen Strasburg is a pitcher, not a piece of fine China.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s a recognition that Washington Nationals fans aren’t going to show up at the park on Half Street to watch “the kid” throw 70 pitches over five innings — especially when it’s clear that (as happened on Sunday), he’s just starting to hit his stride.

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