While the debate has stretched from coast to coast about six-man rotations, abbreviated starts and the merits of capping a pitching arm that begs to be let loose, Stephen Strasburg allowed everyone else to worry about inning No. 160. Or No. 180. Or whenever the Washington Nationals ultimately thank him for his contributions and ask him to put away his glove for the year.
“Nobody talks to me personally about it,” he said, “so obviously I can either scour the Internet, watch all the stuff being said on TV or I can just keep pitching and watch the Golf Channel, I guess.”
Strasburg focused on one inning — the first of 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 Tuesday night, it was the Braves who were shut down, the latest team to face Strasburg and get lost in the moment.
When the 81-mph breaking ball falls out of midair or when a 98-mph fastball feels like a mere aberration, it’s impossible for any foe to worry about whether Strasburg’s arm could hold up in October. They know this much: In August, it was pretty damn good.
“There’s not very many of those guys walking around,” said Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez.
Strasburg improved his record to 15-5 with the Nats’ 4-1 win Tuesday . He struck out 10 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.
If only the Braves were that lucky. The skies cleared and Strasburg returned to strike out seven of the next nine batters. At one point, Juan Francisco whiffed on three consecutive pitches. 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.
“Change-up, curveball, fastball, you name it, they were all devastating,” said Nats shortstop Ian Desmond. “One of the more impressive things I’ve seen out here.”
Strasburg has now pitched 1451 / 3 innings this season. He’s not expected to pitch past 180. While Strasburg’s starts aren’t necessarily overshadowed by the pending shutdown, each performance has certainly underscored what the Nats 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 the 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 said. “I’ve heard it all.”
In the opposite clubhouse, Gonzalez could sympathize. He’ll send Kris Medlen to the mound to start the series finale Wednesday. Medlen, 26, had Tommy John surgery just two weeks before Strasburg went under the knife in the summer of 2010. In spring training the Braves’ brass made a decision about his 2012 workload, settling on a 160-inning limit.
“In one of those meetings, I raised my hand and said, ‘I’m not the smartest guy in this room, but why can’t we consider Medlen in the rotation right now?’” Gonzalez said. “They explained to me, where do you want those 160 to end?”
His first 40 appearances came out of the bullpen but injuries forced him into the starting rotation three weeks ago. In his last start, Medlen posted a shutout. He enters Wednesday’s contest with just 80 innings under his belt this season. What’s become increasingly clear as the debate over Strasburg’s innings limit has intensified: While five teams might opt to handle the exact scenario five different ways, the players’ collective voice is a bit more consistent.
Braves’ third baseman Chipper Jones has faced nearly 1,300 pitchers during his 19-year career. He already places Strasburg in an elite class.
“I see both sides. I get it. But baseball players, we’re one to hunt it down and kill it. Right now. They have a chance to slay the dragon. I’m sure 24 other guys over there feel much the same way I do.”
Johnson said as long he Strasburg is in uniform, the pitcher won’t be coddled. And Strasburg says as he long he’s handed the ball every five days, the only shutdown he's thinking about involves the opposing team.
“The job isn’t finished,” he said. “It’s still August. We're still focused, we’re still trying to win as many games as we can.”
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