The window of opportunity is a fickle thing. Sometimes, what looks to be a budding dynasty gets one shot at winning and then crumbles in the aftermath.
In 2006, the Mets ran roughshod over the rest of the NL East, but injuries to key starting pitchers and horribly timed slumps from impact hitters led to the Mets dropping a heartbreaker of an NLCS to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games in a season where the Mets SHOULD have not only beaten the Cardinals, but steamrolled the AL Champion Detroit Tigers in the World Series.
In the days that followed, the sadness turned to optimism as many fans pointed to the emergence of young stars Jose Reyes and David Wright as well as continued excellence from veteran Carloses, both Beltran and Delgado added to a pitching staff featuring a “healthy” Pedro Martinez, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez and young fireballers John Maine and Oliver Perez who had both performed admirably in the playoffs.
Unfortunately, it would be nine years before the Mets even reached the playoffs following the disappointment of 2006. They had their chance. And they blew it. You don’t always get a second chance in sports.
The Atlanta Braves and NY Yankees both had runs of sustained success in the 90s and early 00s, but the Braves were only able to win one championship (in the strike-shortened season of 1995) proving that even if you have a fistful of lottery tickets, your number may still not come up.
This week, Nationals pitcher Stephan Strasburg was removed from a game and it was feared that he may have needed a second Tommy John surgery. The Nationals sit comfortably atop the NL Eastern division right now and – barring a monumental collapse – are pretty much guaranteed to see postseason play. But the loss of Strasburg for the postseason would have been a huge hit to their World Series chances.
The diagnosis was that he just had a strain of the flexor tendon, but more than that, it was a harrowing reminder of how you need to seize your opportunities when you have them. Strasburg was probably the most hyped draft pick in history when he was taken first overall by Washington in the 2009 draft and his talent and potential was on full display when he made his debut in 2010 in a 14 strikeout performance against the Pirates that was carried nationally on ESPN.
Unfortunately, for Strasburg and the Nats, he would need Tommy John surgery and missed most of the 2011 season before returning for a cup of coffee in September. He was ready to go for the 2012 season, but with a strict innings-limit that would force him to be shutdown in September while the Nats were thought to be a favorite to win the National League and potentially the World Series.
Without Strasburg – Washington’s clear-cut ace – they lost a five-game series to the Cardinals and, though they have always defended the organizational decision to sit Strasburg in his first full-year back from surgery, the questions and “what-ifs” have never gone away.The Nationals haven’t been in a position to make another such run until this season where they almost lost Strasburg again.
The Mets were faced with a similar issue with their ace, Matt Harvey, last season. They decided to peel away from their pre-season, self-imposed innings limit and let Harvey pitch until the final game of the World Series, by which point he had accumulated more innings than any other pitcher in history fresh off TJ surgery.
There’s a fine line between use and abuse and the Mets – while clearly pushing Harvey – didn’t abuse the right-hander. They simply tried to seize an opportunity both the player and team knew wouldn’t present itself very often.
It’s unenviable situation for an organization to be put into with how we value young, power arms in this day and age of baseball, and to risk long-term damage to such a valuable asset for a short-term gain is borderline irresponsible, but there has been no definitive proof showing exactly what causes pitchers to break.
Until there is, the cases of Harvey and Strasburg will keep presenting themselves with new faces and new names and new coaching staffs and front office executives who are forced to make the decision of whether to try to protect and asset or put the pedal to floor and go for what may be your one chance to get through a window that is eternally closing.
If you ask Mets fans, I guarantee they agree with going for it as 2015 was a magical season that evolved out of thin air and fell just short of possibly being miraculous. Nationals fans may have agreed with the decision to sit Strasburg at the time, thinking it was just the beginning of a long run of Washington dominance, but that never did materialize. They’re left with the what-ifs and the realization that you need to capitalize on legitimate championship opportunities when they present themselves because there is zero guarantee that there is another one waiting behind it.
There’s no sport as fickle as baseball when it comes to injuries and the impact they can have on expectations. Losing a starter of the ilk of a Harvey or Strasburg long-term usually means postponing expectations until they’re able to return. Which is why when you have them and when they’re able, you go for it. Every time. Because by the time you’re back in that position, you’re just a flexor tendon away from not being close again.