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Young talent a source of National pride

Washington GM Mike Rizzo thinks ace Stephen Strasburg is “definitely a better pitcher than he was pre-injury.’’ Washington GM Mike Rizzo thinks ace Stephen Strasburg is “definitely a better pitcher than he was pre-injury.’’ (Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images)
By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / June 8, 2012
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There was a time not long ago when Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo was the last person you’d want to be in baseball.

He was overseeing a last-place team that couldn’t get out of its own way. In fact, things had been futile for the organization since its move to the nation’s capital from Montreal in 2005 - long before Rizzo arrived.

But, oh, how things have changed.

Rizzo, who was appointed interim GM in March 2009 after the sudden resignation of Jim Bowden and became the permanent guy on Oct. 19, 2010, is now living a dream.

He has a first-place team with two of the top young talents in the game: Stephen Strasburg, the electric righthander who makes his Fenway debut Friday night, and Bryce Harper, the next superstar outfielder who, at age 19, is already a dangerous hitter and an excellent defender.

So how is it to be Rizzo these days?

As the saying goes, “Life is good.’’

Strasburg, who pitched in five games at the end of last season after recovering from Tommy John surgery, is a monster on the mound with a 6-1 record and a 2.35 ERA.

There were fingers crossed after Strasburg was hurt; people remembered him as the kid with a blazing fastball and tremendous movement. When he took the mound, it wasn’t fair.

Well, it’s still not fair.

“I think he’s definitely a better pitcher than he was pre-injury,’’ said Rizzo, who spent six seasons as a scout in Dan Duquette’s employ with the Red Sox. “He doesn’t need that 97-98 m.p.h. on every pitch.

“He’s learned to be more economical. He’s learned how to throw fewer pitches, and when he needs to go get that extra on the fastball, he can go get it if he needs to have a strikeout.

Strasburg has struck out 79 and walked 17 in 65 innings. In his last outing, June 2 vs. the Braves, he struck out nine and walked none in seven innings, throwing 90 pitches. He has eight quality starts in 11 appearances.

The Nationals seem to be pulling in the reins on Strasburg, who has not thrown 100 pitches in his last four outings.

“What hasn’t changed is that he wants to be the best of the best,’’ Rizzo said.

In Harper, who has hit .276 with five homers and 14 RBIs in 35 games, Rizzo sees a kid well beyond his years.

“It’s been heartwarming to see how well he fits on our team and how well he’s regarded by the rest of the team,’’ Rizzo said. “His teammates love the guy.

“These guys would take a bullet for him; that’s how much of an impact he’s made on the field and in that clubhouse.’’

I asked Rizzo if he ever sees something in Harper that leads him to think, “That’s where he could have used a little more seasoning in the minors.’’

Rizzo didn’t hesitate with the response.

“As someone whose job has been developing and scouting players, you often have that mental calendar in your head with different players,’’ he said, “but with Bryce, you throw out that development calendar.

“That clock doesn’t exist with him, because he’s so special.’’

Rizzo has been a huge advocate and defender of Harper. When Philadelphia’s Cole Hamels hit Harper with a pitch in the first inning of a May 6 game - essentially because Harper was a rookie - Rizzo called Hamels “fake tough,’’ “classless,’’ and “gutless.’’

Harper responded in the very same inning when he stole home as Hamels tried to pick off a runner at first base.

With Strasburg and Harper excelling, the Nationals are ahead of schedule.

Most figured the Nationals would be good, but perhaps a year away from contending in the competitive National League East with the pitching-rich Phillies, Braves, and rising Marlins.

“I would describe it as a little bit ahead,’’ Rizzo said. “In our vision for what we believed this team needed to look like trying to compete in our division, it seemed as if every team had excellent starting pitching. We knew we had to have that to compete.

“So when Strasburg came back and we added Edwin Jackson and traded four prospects for Gio Gonzalez, we knew we had the making of a rotation that could compete.’’

The season started with injuries to big-time players such as third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, outfielders Michael Morse and Jayson Werth, and closer Drew Storen.

“At one point, we had our Nos. 3-4-5 hitters out,’’ said Rizzo. “We have our closer down and our fifth starter out.’’

Yet the Nationals persevered.

“I look at it like this,’’ said Rizzo. “Injuries beget opportunities for players, and if not for the injuries, we wouldn’t have seen Steve Lombardozzi or Bryce up this soon. Or we wouldn’t have had Sean Burnett pitch the eighth inning so terrifically or Tyler Clippard pitch the ninth so terrifically.

“Things have a funny way of working themselves out.’’

The Nats are so deep that they have John Lannan, who normally would be a fourth or fifth starter, in Triple A at Syracuse.

Ross Detwiler won a starting job over Lannan in spring training, and now that Chien-Ming Wang is back as the fifth starter, Detwiler has pitched very well out of the bullpen.

Little by little, the injured players are coming back, and the Nationals could be a force in the present and for years to come.

They may also forge a nice interleague rivalry with the Red Sox, as there is a strong possibility the Nationals will move their spring headquarters to Fort Myers, Fla., and occupy City of Palms Park.

“I’m looking forward to the weekend,’’ Rizzo said. “Having worked in that organization, I know it’s an iconic franchise. I have a great deal of respect for the Red Sox and for Bobby Valentine, who is a great manager.’’

And Rizzo thinks he has a great manager in Davey Johnson.

“He’s been able to relate to the younger players and the veterans,’’ said Rizzo. “He’s brought this team together.

“I think we have one of the best clubhouses in all of baseball. We have some good people playing for us. It’s a tribute to the people who work so hard in our organization.’’

If you’re in baseball right now, there’s nobody you’d rather be than Mike Rizzo.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of games Strasburg played last season.

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