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Cardinals vs. Nationals: Stephen Strasburg's postseason and the point of the NLDS

Stephen Strasburg has pitched 251 major league innings. All of them, for at least another year, have been during the regular season.

Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

In those 251 innings, he's struck out 313 batters and walked 67, which is most of what you need to know about Stephen Strasburg. There's something almost anticlimactic about him, too, because he was the best pitcher I've ever seen in his first major league start, and he went about it in such a superhuman way that it seemed almost inevitable that he couldn't stay that good for very long. His fastball was too fast, his changeup was too fast, his curveball was too big and too sharp.

With most great pitchers it's possible to attribute some unassailable part of their dominance to something, some trait, elbow surgery can't get at. Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez were wily and smart and withholding; Randy Johnson was enormous and seemingly indestructible; Roy Halladay rebuilt himself from scratch and works harder than everybody else, and Justin Verlander knows when to turn his fastball all the way up as though he's still pitching in the deadball era and there are regulars who just can't hit home runs. In 2010, at least, I couldn't hide any of Strasburg's performance behind anything except overwhelming, unnatural stuff.

So he broke down, and he had elbow surgery, and he's come back now not quite as good as before but still remarkable. And the Washington Nationals, maybe as nervous as I am about the entirely material source of his powers, have shut him down ahead of the postseason, to husband his pitches for later. Gio Gonzalez will open the NLDS about the St. Louis Cardinals, and it says something about Strasburg that their Cy Young candidate is the obvious second choice.

I'm fascinated by the decision, even though I find it a little weird that it had to be made in this particular way—it's not messy enough as-is, like someone was intentionally using him to generate an easy allegory about something outside baseball.

But that's how they made it: Some probability of Strasburg throwing some amount of additional future innings is worth more to the Nationals—so far gone that their old-fan-interview newspaper features have to be about 99-year-olds who saw Walter Johnson—than some probability of Strasburg pitching them into and out of this particular World Series, for which they're ideally positioned. Flags fly forever-ish.

To me, that says a lot about baseball, and not just because its great pitchers are so strikingly fragile compared to other athletes. Baseball's postseason is intense and rewarding and devastating, and franchises mark out time in gaps between World Series victories, but it's just another part of the season. It's not the Super Bowl, set apart completely from its sport, or the Finals, which seem to render most of the NBA's overlong season irrelevant.

The Nationals are valuing what Stephen Strasburg can do in the regular season more than people who are not exclusively baseball fans might expect, and I think it's because baseball values its 162 games more than football, say, does its 16. The things Strasburg can do during the regular season, winning 20 games or the Cy Young Award or the pitching triple crown or whatever, have a value that isn't granted so permanently to running backs who rush for a thousand yards.

I think all that's true, in part, because the regular season internalizes what happens outside the sport elsewhere. My friends who enjoy college football bond over it through tailgating, and remembering their time at school, and through all the accoutrements of college sports—sports bars, homecoming, leafy campuses and sweatshirts. The season itself, so much briefer than all the time they spend talking about it, is what all that is building toward. The fact of being a college football fan is a comfort, and the season itself is a reward for being a part of it.

The regular season is how we bond in baseball. It's on in the background every night, while we decompress from work or while we're working still, while much more important things demand our almost-undivided attention and while we wish something would. It's an enormous comfort that we pay for with time, and it keeps going no matter how good or bad our team is, so long as they're playing. However many pitches Stephen Strasburg has before his next surgery have a value enough, across the next several regular seasons, for the Nationals to pass up the chance to trade them, ten or however many to one, for a World Series.

Most of the time the regular season doesn't feel like it's building toward anything, except an interesting story on a baseball card, and that's part of its appeal. But it is, when you're lucky, and the postseason's our reward.