Stephen Strasburg sure didn't look like a pitcher with issues Sunday afternoon in Washington. Quite the opposite, he looked like someone the St. Louis Cardinals or any other team wouldn't want to face in the playoffs a month from now.
The fact that won't be happening isn't merely stupefying. It might be the worst decision for baseball in Washington since the Senators first fled to Minnesota a half-century ago.
Think about it. A Washington team is on the verge of playing a postseason game for the first time since the country was still in the grips of the Great Depression. But when the Nationals open the playoffs — almost surely at home — they'll do it with their best pitcher watching from the dugout, unavailable to help.
All in the name of protecting an arm no one is even sure needs protecting.
Of all the crazy things done in the nation's capital, this may be the craziest. The motive might be admirable — certainly no one wants to see Strasburg end up washed up early like Mark Prior, another recent phenom — but it's based on theory and feel with no real basis in scientific study. It also seems at least partly driven by Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras, who by the nature of his job is more concerned with his client's future earning potential than the possibility of a Washington team winning the World Series for the first time since 1924.
Surely, anyone watching Sunday as Strasburg hit the mid-90s with his fastball would be hard-pressed to find any deterioration in his arm since the season began. He allowed just two hits in six shutout innings against a team the Nationals could be facing in the playoffs, striking out nine to regain the strikeout lead in the National League while lowering his ERA to 2.94.
For that, he gets two more starts, the last coming Sept. 12 against the Mets at Citi Field. Then general manager Mike Rizzo plans to shut him down for the season for fear of risking any more innings on a right arm a year removed from reconstructive elbow surgery.
For Strasburg, that means no playoffs. For Nationals fans, it means having to deal with the idea the best team in baseball will have a tougher time making the World Series than it would have with its ace on the mound.
For Rizzo, it's the right move no matter who criticizes it.
"Stephen Strasburg is one of the most popular players in baseball and it is a good conversational piece," Rizzo said after the game. "It is a debatable subject, but most of the people who have weighed in on this know about 10 percent of the information that we know, that we've made our opinion and based it on."
If Nats fans have trouble swallowing that, it's not because they wish any ill will to Strasburg or the right arm that has already made him quite rich. Surely they want to see him healthy and throwing 95 mph fastballs in Washington for years to come.
But they'd also like to win a World Series before another 88 years passes. And despite Rizzo claiming they have only 10 percent of the information he has, they have yet to be told just how a limit of between 160-170 innings on Strasburg this year guarantees anything for the future of the pitcher or the franchise.
It doesn't, of course. There are no guarantees with the arms of power pitchers, whether they can go into their 40s still throwing heat like Nolan Ryan or Roger Clemens, or flame out early like Prior did with the Cubs. Generally speaking, the more innings a pitcher throws the more chance is he could be injured, but there's wide debate over what constitutes normal use versus overuse.
Indeed, the Cardinals own Adam Wainwright — who at 31 is eight years older than Strasburg — underwent Tommy John surgery last year like Strasburg and has pitched similar innings this season. But with St. Louis battling for a playoff spot, there are no plans to shut him down.
"We're going to go full steam ahead with Adam until he feels anything not normal," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said before Sunday's game. "He has had a great stretch here, except his last start, he's been as good as anybody. As long as he is feeling good we're going to keep going."
The Nationals are taking the opposite approach. Though Strasburg hasn't thrown more than six innings in 22 of his 27 starts and has only 156 1-3 innings on the year, he won't be around for the postseason.
That was the plan going into the season, and Rizzo isn't about to change it now, even with the surprising success of the team. It's based at least partly on how the team has handled other pitchers, including Jordan Zimmermann, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2009 and is now second to Strasburg in ERA among Washington's starters.
It's worked, but that doesn't mean other plans wouldn't work, too. Again, the motives might be admirable, but it's unfathomable that some other tactics were used to make sure the best pitcher on the best team Washington has ever had would be available to pitch in the playoffs.
The subject of the shutdown is one Strasburg has tried to avoid all season, claiming he had no knowledge of the team's plans. He was still trying after Sunday's game, though the secret was out.
"I just don't have anything to say," Strasburg said. "I'm in with these guys. We still have a long way to go. I'm going to fight with them to the end"
Unfortunately for both Washington fans and Strasburg, he'll have to do his fighting from a seat in the dugout.
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