DENVER—Everybody needs to take a deep breath and relax.
So the Nationals cut short righthander Stephen Strasburg’s season as a precautionary move. And Braves righthander Kris Medlen was brought along slowly so he could be ready down the stretch.
Big deal? Not really.
Back in the spring, the Nationals made no secret of their plan to limit Strasburg, the crown jewel of their organization, to fewer than 170 innings. They wanted to be careful with his workload in the aftermath of his Tommy John surgery last year.
Atlanta, meanwhile, was a lot more low-key in its planning with Medlen, who also was coming off Tommy John surgery. The Braves also planned to limit Medlen, but instead of shutting him down at season’s end, they planned to bring him along slowly as a reliever, then have him ready for a postseason push.
The Strasburg decision has been public knowledge—and in turn the subject of public debate—since the season began. But it wasn’t until Medlen’s complete-game, 12-strikeout effort against the Rockies on Sept. 3 that his situation appeared as a counterpoint.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez opened the door to the public only because there were so many questions about how Atlanta could have waited so long to turn to Medlen. The Braves, after all, had won all 11 of his starts since he was inserted into rotation on July 31, and he was 8-0, 1.04 in that stretch. He had a 34 2/3-inning scoreless streak before giving up an unearned run against Colorado in that Sept. 3 game.
“It was all limits to innings,” Gonzalez said. “It was basically the number that Strasburg is facing right now, 160 to 170, because they are both coming off Tommy John surgery. Where do I want that 160 to 170 to end? Do we want it to end in October or do we want it to end in August?”
The cynic would say Gonzalez was essentially calling out Washington’s decision to push Strasburg early and then face a postseason without its ace.
But it might also be a case of each franchise facing a different agenda.
The history of the two teams is as contrasting as the backgrounds of Strasburg and Medlen. Strasburg was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft, one of the most noted pitching prospects in draft history. Medlen was the 310th selection in the 2006 draft, a 10th-round pick of the Braves out of Santa Ana (Calif.) JC.
Strasburg is prototype power pitcher, 6-foot-5, 220 pounds and able to overpower hitters. When his season ended, he led the major leagues with 195 strikeouts. Medlen is 5-foot-10, 190 pounds and a mix-master on the mound, with a fastball that scrapes 90 mph three times.
Yet the Braves are baseball blueboods, while the Nationals are the working class.
The Braves seek another World Series championship, while the Nationals opened the year looking simply to earn respect, knowing that whatever might happen in October would be a bonus.
Atlanta is a franchise with a reputation for regular season success and postseason disappointment. The Braves have won a championship in each city they have called home—Boston (1914), Milwaukee (1957) and Atlanta (1995)—with a professional sports record 14 consecutive division titles from 1991-2005 and 17 postseason appearances since the birth of the Expos/Nationals in 1969. Yet they have advanced to the World Series only four times during that run.
The Nationals are finishing off their first winning season in their eight years since moving from Montreal and will make just the franchise’s second ever postseason appearance. Their only other playoff trip was in 1981.
Davey Johnson was one of three managers the team employed last year, one of five to have filled out a lineup card in the eight years the franchise has been in the nation’s capital.
The pedigrees underscore why the two teams would approach a similar situation in such a different way.
Atlanta has reached a point where anything less than winning the final game of the season is a disappointment. Washington just wants a taste of postseason success and is focused on even brighter days ahead.