When the Washington Nationals shut Jordan Zimmermann down late last year on August 28th, Nats' skipper Davey Johnson said that the then-25-year-old right-hander, who had made 26 starts and thrown 161.1 IP, was at the top of his game. In his last five starts of 2011, the '07 2nd Round pick had a 3.45 ERA and a 4.73 FIP with nine walks (2.83 BB/9) and 26 Ks (8.16 K/9) in his final 28.2 IP. "I loved him last year," the 69-year-old manager said earlier this month. "And he was my best pitcher when we shut him down in September. No question about that. And he's picked up and even run it up a notch." Stephen Strasburg is making his 25th start of 2012 tonight in Nationals Park, where the Washington Nationals take on the Atlanta Braves in the second game of the three-game set in D.C. Strasburg's inevitable shutdown has been the talk of the nation's capital in recent weeks, matched only by talk of the Nationals' first run at a postseason berth.
The Nats' 24-year-old right-hander is (3-0) in his last three starts with a 1.50 ERA, 2.49 FIP, nine walks (4.50 BB/9) and 19 Ks (9.50 K/9) in 18.0 IP over which he's held opposing hitters to a .133/.246/.150 line. The end of Strasburg's first full season in the majors is coming, however, something Johnson and the Nats have been prepared for since long before the first competitive pitch of 2012 was thrown. "I've had a governor on him," Johnson said, "With [it being] his first full year in the big leagues, knowing that he's got an innings limitation, but that's being overshadowed a little bit by [the fact that] we're in a pennant race. I won't be thinking about limiting him in his last few starts, and I'll go with what I think I can get out of him and that's it."
"I've gone through this with Jordan," Johnson explained, "So I guess you can say I'm used to it, but we've lost key players during the year. Good teams find a way to stay afloat regardless of the circumstances. I don't spend much time worrying about things I don't have much control over anyway." In Zimmermann, of course, as the Nationals have explained repeatedly, the Nats have a model for the recovery process Strasburg's going through now. "There's no guarantee of anything," Johnson said, "but certainly [Zimmermann] was throwing great last year. It's kind of very similar in that [they had] almost identical times of the surgery and rehab, and I do know from this surgery that you usually come back stronger after the rehab period."
The Nationals' manager said once again that he rarely looks ahead, however, and he's not thinking about next year, but instead watching pitchers like Strasburg and Zimmermann continue to develop and concentrating on, "... watching them pitch and watching them learn how to get better. They're all still in that growing stage."
The Nationals, as a team, took time at the beginning of the year to discuss ways to keep Strasburg around for the end of the year, but as the manager said, "I have a little bit of experience in dealing with pitchers and their workload and their scheduling and the one thing that would have been the most detrimental to his health, to any pitcher's health, is if you vary from what starts from day one of Spring Training. You can't put somebody as like a fifth starter and then skip [starts], that's more dangerous for a young pitcher, not having regular work. Some of these guys don't handle even extra days off, they're too strong, they start jumping, so you want to make sure that that's consistent and if there's a shutdown date, there's a shutdown date."
"There's no way to solve that problem," Johnson continued, "making sure that you don't take further risks. It's real easy for the bloggers and the Tweeters and all those people to say, 'Why don't you do this? Why don't you do that? Bring him out of the bullpen, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.' I've heard it all and I said, 'Well it's a good thing you guys aren't managing and I'm the one that's managing.' You do what's best for the player. Always. Number one. Ever since, pitcher, player, you do what's best for them today with an eye on tomorrow, and that's the end of the deal if you want to do it right."
Strasburg's season is coming to an end. Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell told 106.7 the FAN's Holden Kushner in an interview this morning that he sees signs that Strasburg's reaching the end of his 2012 campaign. "I think the people who analyze pitching motions already see fatigue in his delivery. He's spraying his fastball. He usually has command of almost all three of his pitches. He's such a freak of nature and just has such good stuff that in Arizona he was spraying every pitch he had including his fastball [and] they got one hit off him in six innings. But, still, all the evidence of fatigue mounting is there and the truth I think is in October you would not see the real Stephen Strasburg at all. He might not get hurt, but I think you're already seeing a gradual degrading."
Davey Johnson's advice for those keeping a close eye on Strasburg? The Nats' manager said he's not focused on the innings limit, or anything but watching how the young pitcher grows and learns about himself and his competition. Johnson told reporters that he saw Strasburg talking to and receiving advice from former major league pitcher Don Sutton recently. "Those are the exciting things to me," Johnson said, "Where young pitchers even want to talk to other pitchers and learn from them. And what he learns every time out about how they're adjusting to his stuff. That's exciting to me and it should be exciting to everybody else instead of worrying about when he's getting shut down."
• Listen to the WaPost's Thomas Boswell talking Nats with Holden Kushner: