The Washington Nationals seemed to be waiting to exhale ever since mid-September was pegged as the time ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg was going to be shut down.
That day came a little earlier than expected following Strasburg's Sept. 7 start and loss to the Marlins. The Nationals had said Strasburg's final start would come on Sept. 12 in New York, but they announced on Sept. 8 that the right-hander would be done for the season.
The Nationals have gone 3-4 since then, losing all three games of the weekend series in Atlanta against the second-place Braves.
But one of those two wins came Wednesday courtesy of Strasburg's replacement, left-hander John Lannan, who also gets the start Wednesday night when the Nationals face the Dodgers.
Lannan was penciled in from almost the beginning of the season as the substitute if and when Strasburg was going to be shut down because of a mandated pitching limit a season following Tommy John surgery. So far, Lannan's veteran presence has been a perfect solution to not having Strasburg.
After the win last week in New York, manager Davey Johnson said Lannan has been exactly what they need without their ace available.
"Lannan was good," Johnson said. "Lannan is very focused. It is a pretty good replacement for Stras."
Following the Sept. 8 Strasburg shutdown, the Nationals clubhouse has had a week to focus on just playing baseball. After a tough series in Atlanta, answering questions about Strasburg is not what the players are worried about most.
Easing the transition to their time without Strasburg will be Lannan's consistency. He's been a with the club before, is a good starting pitcher and has a 3-0 record already this season.
Shortstop Ian Desmond said the win by Lannan on the night Strasburg was supposed to pitch was an example of what the veteran left-hander, who has been the Opening Day starter for the Nationals, could do to finish this season and help the team clinch the National League East title.
"That is what I think we should expect from him the rest of the way," Desmond said. "I don't think anyone in here was concerned about what John was going to give us. We didn't think he needed to prove anything to us. We have seen him pitch and he has done well."
Meanwhile, Strasburg has kept busy over the last week and has been seen on the front step of the dugout during games, chatting with coaches and teammates. Pitching coach Steve McCatty said that Strasburg is still throwing lightly and going over strategies and game situations during the day.
"Just because he's not throwing right now doesn't mean we don't talk," McCatty told The Washington Post. "We still talk. We talk about stuff and situations. He's doing fine."
Johnson even said he'd think about using Strasburg as a pinch-hitter. The pitcher has a .277 average this season.
Shutting down Strasburg is part of a franchise-wide doctrine on how to handle the pitchers. The team shut down Jordan Zimmermann and Strasburg at around 160 innings in successive years following their Tommy John surgeries.
Prospects Alex Meyer and minor league pitcher of the year Nathan Karns were healthy shutdowns late in the season when their innings got up to a level that was 100 innings more than they had pitched the year before, all to protect their arms for the future.
General manager Mike Rizzo last week spoke of the philosophy the day the team decided to end Strasburg's season.
"We have got past histories on these type of rehabilitations and surgeries, and how they get back to play the year after their Tommy John surgery is all important," Rizzo said. "We followed the protocol and we had parameters set in mind."
Starting pitching has been the backbone of the team all season. Even without Strasburg, the Nationals still have Cy Young candidate Gio Gonzalez, solid No. 2 starter Zimmermann, a rising left-hander with power stuff in Ross Detwiler and World Series champion Edwin Jackson.
Rizzo said with veterans in the clubhouse like Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche, the team remains focused on the big prize. The players certainly would prefer to have Strasburg pitching. But without him, they still have the resolve to finish the run.
"I don't think it became a distraction whatsoever," Rizzo said after Strasburg was shut down. "This team is battle tested. They are a terrific major league ballclub with great makeup and guys who know how to prepare for games. You can tell by the product on the field that this had no lingering effect whatsoever."
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