Stephen Strasburg blossomed before Nationals fans' eyes in the course of Washington's championship 2019 season.
Whether it was taking the ball out of the bullpen in a comeback win over the Brewers in the Wild Card Game, or being nails on the road twice in Houston, allowing the Nats to sweep the Astros in their own dome to win the World Series – becoming the first team in history to win all four games on the road – it's clear Strasburg took his game to another level in his 10th big league season.
It's worth remembering, by the way, that Strasburg – in 239 outings prior – had never once pitched out of the bullpen in his career prior to that Wild Card game. Doing so in the most important game of their season to that point was wildly out of his comfort zone, but he rose to the occasion with the grit of a grizzled postseason vet.
It also bears repeating that Strasburg's scoreless sixth, seventh and eighth in that game afforded the Nats the chance to erase Milwaukee's 3-1 lead in the bottom of the eighth.
It was a sign of growth in Strasburg that propelled the Nationals to new heights, culminating in a World Series title. Strasburg, for his efforts, became the first pitcher in baseball history to go 5-0 in the postseason, for which he was rewarded in the form of the World Series MVP and, a short time later, a new $245 million contract from the Nationals.
What's unclear is when this dynamic change began for Strasburg. Nats skipper Dave Martinez points to a singular moment in Aug. 2018 as the turning point, as the Nats were spiraling toward a deflating 82-80 finish.
"I really believe that, you know, two years ago, he got hurt. He came back. His velo was down, everything," Martinez told The Sports Junkies on Tuesday. "He came into my office and said he's gonna shut it down in September, and I looked at him and said, 'No you're not.'
"I said, 'Are you okay?'
"And he goes, 'Yeah. I just – the ball's not coming out.'
"And I said, 'Hey, this is your opportunity to go out there and pitch. Learn how to pitch. Use all your stuff.' Like I watch this guy, and this guy's got incredible, incredible stuff.'"
"(Eric) Thames was talking about his change-up," Junkies host Eric Bickel said. "He said it's just unbelievable."
"Yeah. And to his defense, he did that," Martinez said. "And he had a good September, and he took it upon himself all winter long and said, 'Hey, this is what I'm gonna build. I'm gonna build on (that).' I mean, I saw him all year long just get better and better and better."
"Has that been reported?" Bickel asked. "Did we know that he wanted to shut it down in September, and you said no, you're not going that?"
"No, I mean, it's something that we talk about," Martinez said. "But I didn't want him to do that. I really wanted him to go out there and finish the season, and go out there and just do what he can."
Martinez says he first devised the unconventional approach of using his starters as his bullpen in the postseason last August.
"I started thinking about, if this transpires, we're gonna have to do things a little bit differently," he said.
By the time the playoffs arrived in 2019, Strasburg was a full-fledged bulldog, ready to answer the call whenever asked, coming full circle on a transformation that couldn't have been better timed for the Nats.
"This was all based on conversation," Martinez said. "I can remember sitting in my office with Stras and telling him, 'Hey look, I'm gonna ask you to do something that you might not be comfortable with, but it's up to you. I want you to be honest with me. You're gonna have to come out of the bullpen. Can you do it?'
"And he looked at me. He goes, 'Let's go for it. I'm ready.' There was no hesitation in it."