The Washington Nationals had a plan for what they would do with Stephen Strasburg in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery and they stuck with it even as the team was on its way to an NL East title and the first playoff appearance by a D.C.-based team since 1933.
The grin which normally spreads across Davey Johnson's tanned, weathered face as he sits down to address the media during one of his daily press briefings was noticeably absent. The 69-year-old veteran, in his 16th season on the bench after a 13-year MLB career, didn't look like he'd slept much and he wasn't in the mood to wait for reporters to ask questions. Johnson had just had a conversation everyone knew was coming, though it arrived a start earlier than expected. He started to talk as soon as he sat down. "Well, I just told Stephen [Strasburg] that his year is over," the Nats' skipper said in an unfamiliar, somewhat weary tone, "He's had a great year. I know what he's going through for actually the last couple weeks now. The media hype on this has been unbelievable. I feel it's hard for him as it would be for anybody to get mentally totally committed in a ballgame. And he's reached his innings limit that was set two years ago, so we can get past this and talk about other things for a change."
A few weeks earlier Johnson joked with reporters about all the "help" he was getting via email and text from everyone with an opinion on how he could ensure that the Nats' 24-year-old right-hander would be available in October if/when Washington played the first postseason games by a D.C.-based team since 1933. The Nationals' manager had clearly heard enough at that point.
"I wish we could get by the Strasburg thing," Johnson said.
"Do you think we will?" a reporter asked.
"No," Johnson responded. "Though it's funny, there wasn't anything said when we shut down [Jordan] Zimmermann."
When Johnson officially announced the end of Strasburg's 2012 campaign, the '09 no.1 overall pick was at 28 starts and 159.1 IP. Strasburg finished the year with a 3.16 ERA, a 2.82 FIP, 48 walks (2.71 BB/9) and 197 Ks (11.13 K/9). In his final three starts when the "shutdown story" really blew up with the Nats seemingly headed for the postseason, Strasburg had a 6.43 ERA over 14.0 IP. Davey Johnson told reporters the night after the last of those three starts, a 3.0-inning, six-hit, five-run-allowed outing at home against Miami, that the pressure of the national spotlight on the pitcher's impending shutdown had become too much for Strasburg to deal with.
On the night of that last outing of the season, Johnson said he saw signs that the media attention was affecting the Nats' still-young ace. "I think he just was thinking too much about the decision that we're going to shut him down," Johnson said, "and he kind of wore it. Didn't like it. But that's the way it is." Johnson talked to D.C. GM Mike Rizzo after the start that Friday night and said he thought it was best to stop there, an outing short of the previously-stated date for the shutdown. "I talked to Mike," the Nationals' manager explained and they decided to wait until the next morning to make the decision, "But when I revisited it I felt the same way, so... turn the page."
"It's a great subject to second guess on," Johnson said, referring to the seemingly endless supply of analysts, writers, former players and anonymous sources who'd commented on the plan the Nationals had spoken about publicly for over a year and stuck to. "I mean, I'm mentally worn out seeing it all the time myself," the manager said.
"It has its toll not only on Stephen, but on the rest of the guys on the club," Johnson told reporters, "It's a distraction."
"I don't think it became distraction whatsoever," the Nats' GM said when he spoke surrounded by microphones and tv cameras in the middle of a crowd of 15-20 reporters in a tightly-packed press box high above the field in Nationals Park later that afternoon, after his manager had announced the decision to end Strasburg's season.
"This team is battle-tested," the 51-year-old, fourth-year General Manager said, "They're a terrific major league ballclub with great makeup and guys that know how to prepare for the games and you could tell by the product on the field that this had no lingering effect whatsoever." As Rizzo pointed out then, the team was simply ending Strasburg's season a start earlier than expected because they saw signs they were looking for which told them he'd reached his limit in his first season back following reconstructive surgery on his elbow.
[The] year after the Tommy John surgery is all-important. So we followed the protocol," Rizzo said, "We had parameters set in mind, and after yesterday's start we just figured that mentally and physically Stephen looked like he was fatigued, and decided, 'What's the difference of 159.1 innings or 163 or four or five and a third innings.' We said, 'Let's pull the plug today and move on with the season and try to finish the season off positively."
A "positive" finish wouldn't be enough of course. Anything short of a World Series Championship and the Nationals were sure to be criticized for making the decision which the Nationals' GM said repeatedly he thought was the right thing to do for both the player and the franchise. Washington lost to St. Louis in the NLDS, of course, and it wasn't long before pundits everywhere pointed to the decision on Strasburg as a significant factor in the outcome of the team's first postseason run since returning to the nation's capital in 2005.
Strasburg himself told reporters after the decision was made that it was out of his hands. "It is what it is," the pitcher said, "It sucks. And I just got to move forward and I've got to be here for this team now.'" That it was not his preference was clear, however. "'But this decision,'" Strasburg said, "'They made well before the start of the year. I play for the Washington Nationals. I play to help this team win games. And that's the bottom line. I'm not the one making the calls.'"
Following the Game 5 loss to the Cardinals, Rizzo was asked one last time if he had any regrets about the decision he, Strasburg's doctor and the Nationals' staff made. "'I stand by my decision,'" Rizzo told reporters, "'We’ll take the criticism as it comes.'"
It hasn't stopped coming...
Sources say Democrats and Republicans are really deciding where to set Stephen Strasburg’s innings limit for 2013.— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) December 29, 2012