The fuse running toward the 2013 baseball season has three weeks left. And then the powder keg of anticipation that has built since Jayson’s Werth’s walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth inning against the Cardinals will explode into the 2013 season.
History always provides a good lens for viewing the present, and a century ago, at the end of January 1913, Walter Johnson was still working on the family farm in Kansas. Lifting hay bales and doing the chores around his father’s farm made him into a uniquely strong man, capable of whipping a baseball at amazing speed past the waiting batter. But by finishing second in the American League in 1912, every member of the Washington Nationals team was impatient for the start of the season.
On the first day of spring training, Johnson told reporters, “I feel strong as an ox,” recounts Henry Thomas, whose biography, “Walter Johnson, Baseball’s Big Train,” is must reading for any Nationals fan. In the Feb. 27, 1913 edition of The Washington Post, Johnson’s favorite catcher, Eddie Ainsmith, predicted the Nationals would build on their second-place finish in 1913. “I believe all the boys are figuring now on a slice of that World Series money,” said Ainsmith prior to the season.
It has a familiar ring, as does the fact that Johnson was just 25 that season. Johnson started on opening day win over the New York Yankees by a 2-1 margin. Woodrow Wilson, the newly minted 28th president of the United States, threw out the first pitch to start the season in Griffith Stadium. Of the two men, the Big Train had the better year. His 1913 season still stands as a rare accomplishment that defies modern comprehension.
Johnson won 36 games in 1913, while losing only seven. He pitched to an ERA of 1.14 that is among the lowest ever recorded. He threw 11 complete-game shutouts and did not allow a run over the course of 55 2/3 innings in April and May. Just for the sake of historical accuracy, he relieved in twelve games as well that season. In those games in which he relieved, he notched two saves.
It is difficult enough to compare pitchers of different eras, but separated by 100 years, it is impossible. Yet Stephen Strasburg will turn 25 in July -- the same age as Johnson in 1913. Strasburg will be building from his most successful season as a major league pitcher. Still, no one expects Strasburg to match the feats of Johnson. He will come nowhere close to the 346 innings that Johnson tossed 100 years ago. Strasburg will be elated if he logs 200 regular-season innings and is lucky enough to pitch at the end of the season in postseason play for the first time.
But fans waiting for the start of the coming season are living in a similar state of anxiety, waiting for it all to begin, to see where it all takes us. Unlike the old Nationals, whose penurious owners would not pay to build a winner, the 2013 Nationals have been strengthened in important ways that can only bring a smile to Strasburg and the rest of the Nationals’ very deep and talented pitching staff.
With the addition of Rafael Soriano, a master of ninth-inning closeouts, Strasburg and company can pencil in a few extra wins. Pitchers like Jordan Zimmermann, who was hurt most often last year by late inning collapse and poor offensive support, will profit generously from Soriano’s presence in the bullpen. Soriano also will allow Davey Johnson to conserve the strength of the starting rotation. Few starters will need to go more than six innings in 2013. Davey will save them for the long days in September and October when the final success of the season will be determined.
Walter Johnson pitched for 21 seasons, until he was 39. By having a deep bullpen going into the 2013 season, the Nationals assure that Strasburg has the best possible chance to follow in those footsteps. They guarded his career in 2012 and now they are assuring that in his first full season he will have one of the best defensive clubs supporting him and a deep arsenal of relievers to close out his wins.
Did they count down the days until pitchers and catchers report 100 years ago? Who knows, but only three full weeks remain until the reigning National League East champion Nationals begin their 2013 spring camp. So much tradition and momentum to build upon. Stretch those vocal cords for the first of many “Go Nats!” cheers.
Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released last June. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released last June. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.