For weeks, the impending shut down of Stephen Strasburg has been the talk of baseball and though the Washington Nationals haven’t stated exactly what their limit is –it’s thought to be between 160 and 180 innings– the debate has stretched from East to West about six-man rotations, abbreviated starts and the merits of capping a pitching arm that begs to be let loose. However, despite all the uproar surrounding his imminent departure from the mound, Strasburg’s allowed everyone else to worry about inning limits.
The star right-hander focused on one inning –the first on Tuesday’s game against Atlanta. And then when he blew through that one, he moved his attention to the next. When all was said and done, it was the Braves who were shut down, as the latest team to face the Nationals ace and get lost in the moment. Strasburg weathered his first major league rain delay to improve his record to 15-5 with the Nats’ 4-1 win over Atlanta to help Washington extend their lead to a season-high seven games over second-place the Braves.
He struck out ten batters in six innings and somehow looked stronger after a 51-minute rain delay that had many at Nats Park wondering if the right-hander’s night might be cut short after just two innings of work. The skies cleared and Strasburg returned to strike out seven of the next nine batters. At one point, the Braves’ third baseman Juan Francisco whiffed on three consecutive pitches. Then, catcher Brian McCann watched three wicked strikes pass, never once lifting the bat from his shoulder. In all, eight of the nine batters Strasburg faced on Tuesday struck out at least once. It was the fifth time this season the ace has struck out 10 or more. His career high is 14, which came in his debut on June 8, 2010.
After Strasburg missed the majority of the 2011 season while rehabbing from “Tommy John” (elbow ligament replacement) surgery, it’s understandable that Washington general manager Mike Rizzo and the Nats want to safeguard their 24-year-old ace’s long-term future. The victory put the Nationals (77-46) a season-high, 31 games over .500 and allowed Strasburg to reclaim the National League strikeout lead at 183 in only 145 1/3 innings this season. He’s not expected to pitch past 180 innings. While Strasburg starts aren’t necessarily overshadowed by the pending shut down, each performance has certainly underscored what the Nationals stand to lose. Washington Manager Davey Johnson said the organization stands by its spring decision and isn’t swayed by summertime second-guessers.
“It’s really easy for bloggers and the tweeters and all those people who say, ‘Why don’t you do this,’ ‘We can do that,’ ‘Bring him out of the bullpen,’ blah, blah, blah,” Johnson told The Washington Post. “I’ve heard it all.”
The Nationals implemented a similar strategy last season with right-hander Jordan Zimmermann. Currently, the 26-year-old pitcher is 9-7 with a 2.54 ERA, for second in the NL. “It’s funny; there wasn’t anything said when we shut down Zimmermann,” Johnson told ESPN.
Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports believes that the Nats are a legitimate World Series contender and need Strasburg in order to make an extended postseason run. His argument was only further substantiated on Tuesday when the star pitcher’s masterful performance helped to propel Washington to a series win over the Braves. He wrote on Tuesday:
“Mercifully, the end is almost near. Strasburg, averaging just under six innings per start, will pitch four or five more times, tops. Then, the Nationals will do the only sensible thing and rip the ball out of his right hand. If his 24 teammates don’t like it –if those ingrates think that winning the World Series actually matters– heaven help them.”
What’s become increasingly clear as the debate over the inning countdown rages on is, when Strasburg’s on his game, it’s easy to see what the ruckus is all about. The NL All-Star says as long as he’s handed the ball every five days; the only shut down he’s thinking about involves the opposing team. “The job isn’t finished,” he told the media after the Tuesday night’s win. “It’s still August. We’re still focused, we’re still trying to win as many games as we can.”
Washington NL East lead was trimmed to six games on Wednesday night, as it fell to Atlanta 5-1. For a city vying for a chance to play in the postseason for the first time since 1933, it seems the Nats would stop at nothing to secure a playoff berth. Strasburg insists that he has a “lot left in the tank” because of a rigorous workout program and refinements that he has made to his delivery throughout the season, but the decision isn’t his to make.
“When I see with my eyes that he’s had enough, he’ll have enough,” Rizzo said, according to The Post.
On Wednesday, Johnson said he expects Strasburg to most likely miss his final two or three starts in the rotation during the last days of the regular season, and the entirety of the playoffs. With Washington emerging as the proud owners of baseball’s best record, and with five starts remaining for Strasburg in the year, perhaps the correct question to ask regarding the Nat’s decision to shut down Strasburg’s arm is; whether Rizzo and Co., ultimately wants to win this season?