WASHINGTON – Truth be told, we all are a little bit bored. The Phillies are marking time until Chase Utley and Ryan Howard come back, at which point they will begin marking time until October. It is too early to be worried in a world with two wild cards and too late to do anything about the age of the team’s core players, so we wait. Such are the realities in a town where only the World Series is good enough anymore, and where the crowds arrive a little later and leave a little earlier and grumble a little louder than in the recent past.
We are all bored, so we invent things to talk about. Like rivalries. This year, that means the Washington Nationals. It started when the Nats tried to prevent Phillies fans from buying tickets to a series in Washington a couple of weeks ago, and it continued when Cole Hamels intentionally threw at Nationals rookie Bryce Harper and then admitted it after he hit him. Then Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo called Hamels “chicken---,” along with a couple of less-kind things.
The result is said to be a burgeoning rivalry that has a chance to grow into something that will fall just between Cain vs. Abel and Ness vs. Capone. And, well, maybe. But it is a little hard to pump up the thing when one team is in second place and the other is in last place and neither has ever played a game that was truly meaningful to both of them.
It is too early. In reality, the rivalry is personified in the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg – greatness-in-waiting, yes, but still waiting. And, truth be told, waiting-and-walking-on-eggshells.
We all know the story, of precocious excellence derailed by a terrible arm injury, followed by Tommy John surgery, followed by Strasburg’s reemergence, followed by the Nationals’ determination not to overuse him this season and all of the attendant scrutiny.
After a bad start last Tuesday – four innings, four earned runs against San Diego – Nationals manager Davey Johnson said that Strasburg was bothered by the fact that he got some “hot stuff” in the “wrong place.” And, well, ouch. The end result is that Strasburg did not want to talk about it and reportedly denied to teammates that it happened, and also that Phillies fans will certainly unfurl a sing-song chant the next time they see Strasburg pitch, either “Bennn-Gaaay ... Bennn-Gaaay” or “IIIII-cy Hot, IIIII-cy Hot ... ” Not sure which.
Then came Sunday against Baltimore. Strasburg struggled in the first, his defense struggled in the second, he threw a lot of pitches and trailed by 3-0. Then his team started hitting, Strasburg himself hit his first major league homer and took a curtain call, he struck out eight of 11 Orioles at one point and he was at 90 pitches after five innings – at which point, Johnson went to the bullpen. Most people figured it was just part of the don’t-overwork-him plan for the season.
But no. Johnson said he hooked Strasburg because his arm was hurting him.
“His tightness was in his bicep,” Johnson said. “He said it was bothering him early on and he thought he could get loose, but it seemed to get tighter on him.”
“Bicep’s fine,” Strasburg said.
“I talked to him later in the game and he said it relaxed a little bit,” Johnson said. “It felt a lot better. I’m not as concerned when I hear it’s in the bicep.”
“It wasn’t my bicep,” Strasburg said. “It had nothing to do with the elbow or anything. It was just normal fatigue.”
“The pitch count was fine,” Johnson said. “He was throwing great ... But I don’t care who it was. When I find out they have tightness in there and they’re worried about it, they’re out.”
“I wouldn’t say it was just my arm,” Strasburg said. “It was just my body. I think I kind of worked out a little bit more in the weight room, probably a little bit more than I should have, threw a little bit more in the bullpen, threw a little bit more in-between [starts], because I really wanted to go out there and get back on track. I wasn’t happy at all with my outing previously. That’s something where I need to take ownership and I need to remember that I can’t just jump ship because of one bad outing. I have to stay the course and keep on pitching and keep my routine the same.”
Head spinning yet? Strasburg admitted that his altering of the normal program was “a little immature,” which is the point exactly. The other point is that Strasburg cannot sneeze without the entire District of Columbia worrying about an influenza pandemic.
And this: Until Strasburg is pitching against the Phillies in a September game with the postseason at stake, all of this rivalry talk with be just that: talk to get us through the summer.
Contact Rich Hofmann at firstname.lastname@example.org, read his blog, The Idle Rich, at www.philly.com/TheIdleRich, or follow @theidlerich on Twitter. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/RichHofmann.