Tonight there’s a battle for first place in the AL East with the remarkable upstart Orioles taking on the behemoth Yankees. Yet most eyes in the baseball world will be elsewhere: in Washington DC and south Texas. There two of the most talked-about and anticipated starts of the year take place- Stephen Strasburg in Washington for the Nationals and a guy who was coming off his second Cy Young Award when Strasburg was born, Roger Clemens, in suburban Houston. The two are anticpated for different reasons yet are intriguingly similarly relevant.
In Washington , Strasburg is due to pitch against Miami in what will be his last, or possibly second-last game of the year. The Nationals,they or best record in baseball, as you likely know have decided to “shut down” their healthy ace for the year because he will have reached a pre-determined number of innings and the Nats brain-trust have it in their head that any innings over that number will jeopardize the young phenoms arm. In Sugarland, Clemens will make what will likely be his last start for the minor league Skeeters. If he leaves in pain or flames out, it will likely be the last start he’ll ever make in pro ball. However, if he looks respectable, as he did last month in his debut, it’s a poorly-concealed secret that the Houston Astros, they of the worst record in baseball, will sign the Rocket and use him for a game or two before slinking away for the off-season to prepare for even worse fates next year in the American League. As a fan, I”m furious at Washington. Surprisingly, I’m not that riled up about Houston.
Unlike many in this area, I’m not a fan of the Nationals. I wasn’t especially fond of the Expos, and besides, this is the organization that let baseball shrivel on the vine in Montreal then walk away. Little there for a Canadian to feel warm and cuddly about. I feel thankful that I’m not a fan of the DC club. If I were, I’d be apoplectic. The team which only two years back were a dismal 69-93 have a comfortable lead in their division and are going to the playoffs for the first time since moving to the capital a decade back. Everything seems to be clicking for the Nationals this year, including especially, the top end of their starting rotation. Gio Gonzalez has upped his game coming over from Oakland and of course, Stephen Strasburg, perhaps the most talked about pitcher since Roger Clemens has lived upto his billing as the top young ace in the game , going 15-6 with a 2.94 ERA and well over a strikeout per inning. He’s seemed totally healthy this year, after coming back from Tommy John surgery last summer. He shows no signs of slowing down or wearing out either; since July he’s been 4-1 with 41 Ks in 35 innings and a stellar 2.31 earned run average. He should be a lethal weapon against the bats of the Reds or Giants in the playoffs. So why on earth would the team want to stop him playing?
Well, of course because they have an idea in their head that pitchers coming off Tommy John surgery is weakened and fragile; they have it in their head that 159 innings is fine for such a pitcher but anything topping 160 will cause said arm or elbow to explode like Scratchy after Itchy replaces his eyes with handgrenades in a cartoon. There is alas, no real evidence to back this theory. The Blue Jays Jason Frasor has undergone the surgery twice and has never topped 75 innings in a season. His teammate, Kyle Drabek is out for the season after also needing Tommy John surgery for the second time and he had logged only about 71 innings this year after averaging something like 140 innings (between minors and majors) in the past couple of years. The aforementioned Clemens, for the record, pitched 254 innings the year he was Strasburg’s age, and never required the major surgery. Tommy John, who should know a thing or two about Tommy John surgery, has spoken out and says there’s no need to baby a pitcher coming back from the operation; he came back stronger and feeling healthier than he was before and the procedure has improved and become more routine since he underwent it over thirty years back.
Strasburg is capable of pitching,Strasburg says he wants to pitch in the playoffs. Fans in the capital-area are hungry for some success and love their young pitcher. To shut him down on basis of merely fearing he could get injured is ludicrous. Moreover, it’s disrespecting the fans and the game itself. A team has a responsibility to field the best team it can all the time, to try their best to win. Washington is not doing so. They deserve the scorn of their fans. They deserve to lose.
Whether or not the Astros deserve to lose, they will. They’re dreadful this year, 42-95, and face an uphill battle to improve , particularly shifting next season to a tougher division. There’s little for their fans to cheer about. Which is why I don’t mind the idea of having Clemens pitch for them this month. Yes, it’s a publicity stunt. Yes, it’s self-centred Clemens at his most egotistical, attempting to put more distance between his recent trial and his eligibility for the Hall of Fame (not to mention attempting to win his 355th game to tie, and perhaps 356th one to edge out, Greg maddux) . And no, the Roger of 2012 isn’t going to be a “Rocket.” A “hang-glider” more like.
That said, there’s no reason to object to the idea. The Astros have a duty to try to put something on the field that is worth the fans paying to see or spend time watching at home, and there is an undeniable interest in, and perhaps (in Houston) affection for Clemens. And, we are talking about the worst team in baseball here. A team with the 15th best ERA in the 16 team NL. Based on his one start in the minors (against a couple of players who recently had played in the bigs) and evaluation of his pitches, its not hard to imagine that he would be at least as good as recent redoubtable Astros starters Fernando Abad (5.30 ERA, hitters clipping him for a .326 batting average) or Jordan Lyles (3-11, 5.55).
Possibly it’s pathetic that the once great Clemens is reduced to this to try to ensure his legacy. Perhaps it’s pathetic that he might actually improve the Astros at age 50. yet that’s the situation so I for one, am OK with it. I just hope it doesn’t start a trend. No one needs to see Pete Rose playing alongside Joey Votto in a Reds uniform , swinging feebly at balls in the dirt.