Sports

Picking Splinters: Great Expectations

June 8: when the savior arrives in Washington in the earthly form of Stephen Strasburg.

June 8: when the savior arrives in Washington in the earthly form of Stephen Strasburg.

Maybe that’s a little hyperbolic, but can you blame me? I’ve been conditioned to think that June 8, 2010 is so important to the Nationals that we may as well mark all the days that come after differently than we mark those that fell before — Anno Strasburg and Before Strasburg.

But perhaps the man won’t meet the grandiose hype that surrounds him. Maybe nothing will change regarding the Nationals’ fortunes. Maybe the days that follow June 8 will be BS too.

If the reality meets the hype, that won’t happen. Nickname king Nyjer Morgan dubbed the hard-throwing wunderkind “Jesus” because the first time anyone sees Strasburg uncork his 100-mph fastball in person that’s the first word out their mouths.

Baseball talent evaluators have gone so far as to label him the single best pitching prospect, not just in his draft class, but ever. Moreover, the Nationals believe in him so much they doled out a record contract bonus to ink the No. 1 draft pick.

If Strasburg lives up to the myths that have preceded him, he will immediately become the Nationals’ best pitcher. And if that’s the case, then maybe Jesus in Stirrups will be able to lay his healing hands on the moribund franchise and raise it from the walking dead. And maybe, just maybe, he’ll be able to transmute Gatorade into champagne and a postseason appearance for the Nats. And maybe he’ll be able to do it this year.

Think about it: No one thought that Nats would be even sniffing .500 when Strasburg got the call from the minors. Certainly no one thought they’d be just 3.5 games back of the top spot in the National League East, as they were on June 1.

If Strasburg really is one of the best prospects to ever throw a heater, than 3.5 games is a margin he can make up. Replace your worst starting pitcher, most likely Craig Stammen (and his 5.88 ERA) with a talent like Strasburg and your win total in those starts is bound to rise from just 1 in 11 starts. Even if Strasburg is just a .500 pitcher, he’ll close the gap with division-leading Atlanta.

Moreover, he’ll have support from a potent top of the lineup that features Ryan Zimmerman building on last season’s career year with 11 HRs and a .308 AVG through Tuesday night. With a combined 20 HRs, Josh Willingham and Adam Dunn are again supplying the muscle, and prospect Ian Desmond, though his average is a little low, has been clutch, delivering 28 RBIs.

The Phillies are scuffling at the plate. The Braves are young. The Marlins are the Marlins. The Mets are the Mets. There’s reason to believe that the Nationals can actually contend for the playoffs this season, particularly given their vastly improved bullpen.

But perhaps it’s best not to get ahead of ourselves. There are plenty of factors that argue in favor of the sneaking suspicion that the Nationals have been playing far over their heads and that reality is just a few footsteps behind.

The Nats lead the league in errors. Livan Hernandez is having his best season at roughly age 68. And the stat-obsessed will tell you that Washington’s 20-15 start was built on one-run victories, a measure more of luck than skill. And of course those games have subsequently averaged themselves out, with the Nats posting a 2-6 record in such games after starting a lopsided 8-2. In short, it looks like the Nats will have a rough time sustaining their early pace.

Strasburg will help, but perhaps it’s time to put a cap on our Strasburgian expectations. Even if he produces as well as another hot-shot prospect pitcher, Mark Prior, he still may not top six wins in his rookie season. The lessons from Prior’s injury-plagued past will also prevent the Nats from pushing their prospect too hard in his rookie year, meaning the instant ace is unlikely to be available for extra duty down the stretch when other pennant contenders will turn to their No. 1s for an extra turn or two.

But please don’t let that dampen your enthusiasm too much. By all accounts, Strasburg’s start will fall a day after the Nats will select this year’s uber-prospect, catcher Bryce Harper, No. 1 overall in the MLB draft. As hyped as Strasburg was as a pitcher, Harper is his match behind the plate.

After spinning their wheels since a surprisingly good first season in the District, the Nats are finally gaining some traction. June 8 may not be the start of the pennant drive, but it could well be another mark of noticeable forward progress.

It’s not yet time to celebrate, but it is time to get excited.

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