As the Washington Nationals turned themselves into a juggernaut this summer, Stephen Strasburg blocked from his mind the notion he would be disconnected from them. Strasburg knew in his head the Nationals planned to end his season. He still was sure in his heart something would happen, they would change their minds, and he would pitch.
He kept believing until Saturday morning, when Manager Davey Johnson delivered the cold, cruel reality. After 1591/3 innings, with 23 games remaining and the Nationals holding a 61/2-game lead in the National League East, Strasburg’s season is over.
After holding his comments all season, the Nationals’ ace reacted angrily to the Nationals’ decision to shut him down Saturday, saying he feels fine physically and he wants to keep pitching.
“I don’t know if I’m ever going to accept it, to be honest,” Strasburg said. “It’s something that I’m not happy about at all. That’s not why I play the game. I play the game to be a good teammate and win. You don’t grow up dreaming about playing in the big leagues to get shut down when the games start to matter. It’s going to be a tough one to swallow.
“All I can do is be the best teammate possible for these guys. I think everybody overlooks all the great contributions that we’ve had this year. I know they’re going to keep going that way, and I’m going to do everything in my power to support them.”
The Nationals had planned to let Strasburg make one more start on Wednesday in New York. But after Strasburg allowed the Miami Marlins five runs in three innings Friday night, the Nationals decided to end his season immediately. Johnson believed Strasburg had become distracted by the immense media coverage of the innings limit the Nationals imposed on him at the start of the season, a restriction put in place to protect Strasburg as he pitches his first full season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in September 2010.
“The media hype on this thing has been unbelievable,” Johnson said. “I feel it’s as hard for him as it would be anybody to get mentally, totally committed in the ballgame. And he’s reached his innings limit. So we can get past this and talk about other things for a change.”
Johnson consulted with General Manager Mike Rizzo and pitching coach Steve McCatty late Friday night. They all believed Strasburg had lost focus because of the impending shutdown. Rizzo planned before spring training began to limit Strasburg’s innings to roughly 160. The question was precisely when, and his performance Friday convinced the Nationals the time is now.
“After yesterday’s start, we just figured that mentally and physically, Stephen looked like he was fatigued,” Rizzo said. “We decided, what’s the difference of 1591/3 innings or 163 or 164 or 1651/3 innings?
“When you put two and two together with the parameters we had in place already, it was a fairly easy decision to say, let’s pull the plug after today instead of having one more start and six more innings.”
At around 10:45 a.m., Johnson sidled up to Strasburg in the Nationals’ training room. “I wasn’t going to drag it out,” Johnson said. “I’m just taking the ball out of his hands.”
“I thought I had another start,” Strasburg said. “It was pretty shocking. I’m not too happy about it. I want to keep pitching out there. As of right now, I think they’ve got some world-renowned doctors. One of them, Dr. [Lewis] Yocum, he resurrected my career. I’ve got to listen to him and I’ve got to trust him.”
Strasburg’s season ends with his ERA at 3.16, which is third in the Nationals’ rotation and 11th in the National League through Sunday’s games. He struck out 197 batters, second in the National League, and walked only 48.
“You couldn’t ask for anything more coming off his first season on Tommy John surgery,” Rizzo said. “He got us to where we’re at right now. He’s a huge part of where we’re at right now. He’s one of the major contributors to the first-place ballclub.”
‘Business as usual’
Rizzo made the decision to limit Strasburg’s innings last year as he made his first starts back from surgery. Strasburg pitched only 441/3 innings last season between the major leagues and minor leagues, which played into the decision as much as, if not more than, the elbow reconstruction surgery.
Rizzo made the same decision last season with Jordan Zimmermann, who stopped pitching after 1611/3 innings. In planning Strasburg’s workload before this season, Rizzo found young pitchers who face a large increase in innings become far more prone to serious injury. Rizzo keeps the summary of the Nationals’ research in a stack of loose-leaf papers that measures 11/2 inches thick.