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.”
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 Jordan Zimmermann, who stopped pitching after 161 1 / 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.
“Business as usual,” Rizzo said. “It was a plan that we put in place back on Feb. 1. We’ve been true to the plan the whole way, and we haven’t wavered from it one bit. This is just a culmination of that plan. I think I believe in my heart that it’s the right thing to do for the player. The right thing to do for the player is the right thing to do for the franchise.”
The Nationals believe Strasburg has shown signs of fatigue in recent starts, that the finish on his breaking ball and “hop” on his fastball is lacking. Strasburg maintained he feels healthy enough to pitch.
“That’s typical of Tommy John rehab patients,” Rizzo said. “Often times, it’s not the velocity or the arm strength that’s the first sign of fatigue. It’s the delivery. Is he online, or is he falling off?”
Strasburg maintained he feels healthy enough to pitch.
“I feel physically great. That’s the thing,” Strasburg said. “But I think, it’s not just about one player. They want me to be here for many years to come. It’s an unfortunate situation. It’s a lot harder decision because we’ve won this year. I don’t think anybody would be talking about it if we were just finishing out the year in September.”
The unprecedented situation led to an avalanche of debate. Though he tried to avoid the endless opining about the innings limit, Strasburg admitted it affected him.
“It bothered me a lot longer than” the past few starts, Strasburg said. “When everybody talks about it and that’s all you hear, it’s hard not to let it bother you.”
While Strasburg spoke with reporters in the Nationals’ clubhouse Saturday evening, he grew testy at times, his emotions still raw. One reporter asked if he had the letter to him that former pitcher Jim Kaat had written on MLB.com, which implored Strasburg to pitch against the team’s wishes.
“Who cares about that?” Strasburg said. “Everybody’s got something to say.”
Another reporter asked Strasburg how he would assess his season, mentioning his 15-6 record.
“You tell me,” Strasburg said. “Does that sound pretty good? Does that sound pretty good? Okay.”
Strasburg said he tried to lobby for more innings, to keep going, but the Nationals would not budge.
“I talked to them about it,” he said. “They seemed pretty firm. It’s not about me. It’s not about one player. The best thing I can do right now is be the best teammate I can.”
The Nationals will replace Strasburg in their rotation with John Lannan, a two-time opening day starter who spent most of the season at Class AAA Syracuse. Even though he will not pitch, Strasburg will remain with the Nationals. He has not been removed from the roster. He will spend each game watching from the dugout, wishing the Nationals were as willing to gamble on his future as he is.
“The easiest way of dealing with it was I just looked the other way,” Strasburg said. “I didn’t really worry about. I was always thinking things were going to change. There’s always going to be something that would change, and I would get the opportunity. But this is a decision they made well before the start of the year. I play for the Washington Nationals. I play to help this team win games. I’m not the one making the calls.”