WASHINGTON -- Whatever Stephen Strasburg does over the remainder of his career, there will always be reason to debate how much he benefited from the Nationals' decision to shut him down before the start of the 2012 postseason. But the idea all along was that he'd have an opportunity like the one in front of him right now.
With Max Scherzer dealing with a sore hamstring, the Nationals will turn to their other ace when they send Strasburg to the mound to oppose Kyle Hendricks and the Cubs in Game 1 of the National League Division Series presented by T-Mobile at Nationals Park tonight.
Over the four seasons that followed Strasburg's shutdown, the Nationals made two more quick exits from the postseason and Strasburg made just one playoff start. This year, though, things have come together for both pitcher and team.
"I'm excited for the opportunity to pitch in the playoffs again," Strasburg said. "It's one thing you really can't take for granted, and you've got to make the most of every opportunity you get."
Strasburg will have some extra adrenaline as he pitches in front of what should be an energized home crowd and against the defending World Series champs. He allowed three runs (two earned) over seven innings in a June 28 win against the Cubs and has surrendered eight earned runs over five career starts (34 2/3 innings) against them for a 2.08 ERA.
Strasburg's first opportunity to pitch in the postseason was denied in 2012, when the Nationals limited his first season back from Tommy John surgery to 159 1/3 innings. He completed a five-inning start before the Nationals were beaten by the Giants in the '14 NLDS and was unavailable for last year's NLDS because of a partially torn pronator tendon.
"He was very disappointed [last year], but he doesn't really show disappointment or happiness either way, really," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said.
When Baker informed Strasburg he would have the honor of making tonight's Game 1 start, he had to laugh at the stoic response provided by the 29-year-old hurler, who ranked third in the NL with a 2.52 ERA -- trailing only Clayton Kershaw (2.31) and Scherzer (2.51).
"He had that same look when he left my office as when he came in," Baker said. "It's the truth, I swear. Anybody that knows him; I was like, man, I thought he was going to be like, 'yeah,' or something -- but he just [had a straight face]."
Strasburg's bid to make 30 starts in a season for the third time and total 200 innings for the second time in his career was derailed in July, when he was sidelined for nearly a month because of a nerve impingement near his right elbow.
But after returning to the Nationals' rotation on Aug. 19, Strasburg proceeded to produce a 0.84 ERA over his final eight starts. Opponents hit just .171 against him during this 53 2/3-inning span that included 63 strikeouts and 10 walks.
"I think he's in the zone a little bit more to where he's attacking guys and hitters know they have to be aggressive," Nationals catcher Matt Wieters said. "You don't want to get behind in the count with a guy with that stuff. So, I think you're seeing hitters change their game plan a little to go after him."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.