Washington Nationals' Stephen Strasburg And The Story That Won't End

Jennifer Stewart-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

The story of Stephen Strasburg's "shutdown" dominated the headlines even as the Washington Nationals battled the St. Louis Cardinals to a fifth game in the NLDS.

Jordan Zimmermann's 2011 campaign ended on August 28th after 161.1 IP in his first full-year back following Tommy John surgery. Though he would have preferred to keep pitching and helping his team, the right-hander said he'd come to accept the way his season had been handled. "You can look at it both ways," Zimmermann explained, "Yeah, of course I wanted to pitch the whole season and maybe skipping a start here and there during the season I could've been able to pitch a whole season, but we tried that a couple times, and it seemed like every time I either skipped a start or had a longer rest I didn't pitch very well, so I think they wanted to keep me on a five-day rotation, and when I was able to pitch every fifth day I seemed to do a lot better."

Stephen Strasburg's first post-surgery season ended a little earlier than expected when the Nationals decided to shut him down at 159.1 IP after a September 7th start in which he struggled on the mound and showed signs, at least in his manager's mind, that the pressure of the season-long innings limit discussion was affecting his performance. When the 24-year-old right-hander spoke to the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore last week, he too said he'd come to accept the Nats' decision though he still didn't like it and had even approached the team about allowing him back on the mound in previous weeks.

In announcing that Stephen Strasburg's season would end, Nationals' manager Davey Johnson explained to reporters why Washington didn't attempt to skip starts (as they had unsuccessfully with Zimmermann) or shut Strasburg down for a time so that he could remain available for their recently-completed postseason run.

"I wouldn't have done anything differently," Johnson said, "and even with all the so-called experts commenting on how to use him, how to get him through October, how to do this, how to do that, I have a little experience in handling a pitching staff and none of those scenarios fit. If they did I would have pursued them. In the handling of any pitcher, they like regular work. They don't need to be a reliever and then come in and start starting. It's way past that. And there [are] dangers in changing a pitcher's program. So, if you put enough thought in on how you're going to handle a pitcher or player and getting them prepared for the season, there's never any second-guessing."

"It's not our first rodeo with this rehabilitation plan," D.C. GM Mike Rizzo told reporters after the shutdown was announced, "And we followed it to the 'T' and I think that this shows that we were in the right vein and we had the right plan of attack to begin with and it was a prudent move to make at the time and even to this day we think it was the right way to do it."

FOXSports.com's Ken Rosenthal found at least one player who was willing to talk off the record about how Strasburg being available would have been given the Nationals the advantage in the NLDS with St. Louis, but the real objection, or as the bow-tied reporter put it, "My beef with the Nats — and the beef shared by many rival executives and some of the team’s own players," had to do with Washington's unwillingness to deviate from the plan they had in place when circumstances changed:

"Well, they could have preserved him for the postseason by bringing him along slowly, delaying his 2012 debut until say, May 1. They also could have built "breathers" into his schedule, buying time by spacing out his innings.

"They chose neither course.

"The Nationals contended that briefly shutting down Strasburg and starting him up again would have increased the strain on his arm. Yet, teams rarely mind when a pitcher misses a short amount of time with say, a minor leg injury, knowing it will freshen his arm in the middle of the 162-game grind."

By the time the Washington Post's Mr. Kilgore spoke to Strasburg, a month after he was shut down, even he'd stopped asking about starting again. "'It’d be pretty reckless to have me get on the mound and get going now after not even getting on the mound for a month,'" Strasburg told the WaPost reporters, "'I talked to them about it for the week after that, but they were pretty firm. Now it’s to the point where I don’t think it would be smart for anybody to do that.'"

What the Nationals did was follow the advice of the surgeon who performed the operation on the right-hander's elbow. Dr. Lewis Yocum, after some confusing/misinterpreted comments about his role in the decision-making process, clarified that he had in fact consulted with the team in a Los Angeles Times' article by Bill Shaikin, in which he was quoted explaining that, "I have been contacted repeatedly and have had numerous discussions with the Nationals GM Mike Rizzo and the team’s medical personnel, as recently as mid-August. While the final decision was up to the team, as is standard practice, I was supportive of their decision and am comfortable that my medical advice was responsibly considered."

Dr. James Andrews, while stating clearly that he had not been consulted on Strasburg's case, also talked about the decision in an ESPN Radio appearance transcribed by the Washington Post's Dan Steinberg in which he was quoted saying that he was in favor of the approach the team was taking with their '09 no.1 overall pick, calling it,"... a bold step," but explaining that, "... it’s probably protective for him and for his long-term career, which is always more important than anything else, particularly in a high-level pitcher like that, and a young pitcher."

As for the idea of shutting Strasburg down for a time and bringing him back, Dr. Andrews said, "'The problem with shutting him down and getting him out of his cycle and then all of a sudden putting him back in, means you’ve got to recycle him. In other words, you can’t take him at a high level, shut him down for a month and then get back immediately to a high level. That could be dangerous, also.'"

"'The problem with that is starting him back up,'" Dr. Andrews continued, "'You all know that the major injuries occur any time when you start somebody back up early in the season when they’ve been off. So it’s a little bit unknown to be able to do that and do that safely. I don’t know how that would actually benefit him. It could benefit him, it could benefit the team, but also it may be dangerous to start him back up with appropriate rest. So I’m sorry to say, but it’s a damned if you do and damned if you don’t deal."

To claim that the Nationals don't realize how rare an opportunity a chance at a World Series Championship can be is ludicrous, especially in a city that lived without postseason baseball for 79 years and without a team at all for 34 before baseball returned to D.C. in 2005. They also clearly realize how rare a once-in-a-generation talent like Strasburg is, and followed what they believed to be the best practice that would result in the right-hander having a long and successful career in the nation's capital and wherever he ends up playing in the future.

The Nationals had a plan, stated it clearly well in advance of the ultimate decision and followed through with what they said they would do. To alter the plan and adjust it to fit the situation would have been to ignore the opinions of a man who's spent a lifetime in baseball like Davey Johnson; a man who spent a lifetime as a scout and executive in Mike Rizzo's case; and the direct or indirect advice of two of the foremost surgeons in the country. Nothing against Mr. Rosenthal and his anonymous source, but given the two options most in D.C. sided with the manager, GM and doctors.

And for every anonymous team member that offered their opinion, there's a Gio Gonzalez, who commented on the record when asked before Gonzalez's start in Game 1 of the NLDS with St. Louis, whether he felt like he would be pitching "for" Strasburg since the right-hander couldn't take the mound himself. "I think Stephen's done plenty for us this year," Gonzalez said, "You know, a guy who's won 15 games, an All-Star, he's also a guy who just came out of Tommy John, you can't ask for more [than] what he's done for us."

"We would love to have him in our rotation," Gonzalez said, and who wouldn't, "We would love to have him playing now, but I think that we're both going to experience this together and we're both going to have some great times. This is an honor to being playing next to a guy who is going to be a superstar in the making."

Given one last chance to comment on the decision, D.C. GM Mike Rizzo told reporters after the Nationals were eliminated from the postseason that he stood by the choice. "'I stand by my decision,'" Rizzo told reporters, "'We’ll take the criticism as it comes.'"

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