This post will not revisit the debate surrounding the decision to shut down Stephen Strasuburg after 159+ innings. The right and wrong arguments do not matter at this point. What does matter is that the Nationals were one and done for post season series in the aftermath and fans of the team, writers and perhaps even the players themselves will forever ask, "What if."
The Nationals were among the best stories of 2012. But the team's wonderful season became a footnote when the circus began about Strasburg. Instead of being celebrated for what the team had become, the team became embattled by its stoic stance to stick to the plan. And to show just how fickle baseball writing can be, the same writers who have long passed judgement on Dusty Baker for "killing" Prior and Wood were lambasting the Nationals for their decision making.
The Nationals did not have to win a World Series title to put aside these questions. But a win in Game Five against the Cardinals would have at least blunted some of the finger-pointing. Instead, a pitching collapse of epic proportions will keep the story in people's minds for a very long time. Nobody knows if Strasburg would have made a difference. Heck, he couldn't have done worse than the way Gio Gonzalez handled that six run lead. It seems that if Strasburg was in there, he would have at least thrown strikes. But he wasn't there, so we will never know.
Much of this current reality can be overcome if the Nationals again make it to the playoffs next year. But if they don't? Well, then the fans grown by that team's season this year will never get over the questions of what might have been.
It has been written this week that the Nationals loss of Strasburg in these playoffs had only a marginal effect. Tell that to the Nationals' fans that just witnessed that pitching meltdown. It had to effect them. Take away one stone from an archway and that archway is not nearly as stable. He was a major stud in that rotation. Did he have his share of clunker starts? Well, yes, he did. Would he have performed well against the Cardinals in the post season? Who knows. We'll never get to know. He would not have been worse than what transpired.
The lost series to the Cardinals was the worst thing to happen to Mike Rizzo and the Nationals. They needed to win at least one series to keep Strasburg from becoming the anchor around their necks. Everything they accomplished this season will be overlooked by the decision. Their 98-win season is moot. A series win might not have made the question go away. But it would have helped. Now, these 2012 Nationals will be plagued by the decision they made forever.