By Tracee Hamilton
Thursday, July 29, 2010; D01
Forty thousand people turned up at Nationals Park on Tuesday night expecting Jim Riggleman to shout "Release the Kraken" as Stephen Strasburg strode to the mound for his 10th start.
That's 40,000 people, but not necessarily 40,000 fans. Fans don't boo the hometown team because of a pitching change. Fans don't boo the long reliever who had a 10-minute warning that he was going to start. Fans don't get up and walk out because one player is out of the lineup, even if that player is Stephen Strasburg.
Hopefully much of the booing was expressing disappointment rather than disagreement with GM Mike Rizzo's decision. Rizzo did exactly the right thing. Strasburg (5-2) hasn't mentioned shoulder tightness before any of his first nine starts. The fact that he mentioned it Tuesday night while warming up is significant. The fact that he felt discomfort before Tuesday and apparently didn't mention it to anyone is hugely significant. Because there's no way he would have still been in the rotation if Rizzo knew he didn't feel right.
Because as hard as Strasburg throws -- and not just throws his fastball, but all of his pitches -- taking a risk with a tight shoulder would be ridiculous. The Nats are at the bottom of the NL East; it's late July; it's the kid's first season. If the Nats want him to have a second season, a seventh one, they have to act with deliberation.
In fact, the Nationals have wrapped Strasburg in cotton wool since the day he was drafted. The team didn't send him to the minors after he signed for $15 million last August in order to keep his pitch count down. They sent him to the Arizona Fall League in October, but he missed the AFL all-star game because of a stiff neck and the playoffs when he tweaked a knee while playing catch with Drew Storen.
This latest injury -- not even an injury, really, at least not yet; let's call it a situation -- has to worry team officials, and if anything hinky had shown up on the MRI exam, they would have shut him down for the season. They still might. He'll throw but not for a few days, and his scheduled start Sunday seems doubtful.
Strasburg has thrown 109 2/3 innings this season, minors included; he threw 109 last season for San Diego State. When Rizzo said that Strasburg is approaching the most work of his young career, he's not just being a nervous Nellie.
Rizzo's plan has always been to limit Strasburg to 160 innings this season. Let's assume this is just a run-of-the-mill inflamed shoulder and not something more serious -- a big assumption at this point. If the Nats don't lower that number as a further precaution, he has seven or eight starts (assuming six innings a start) remaining this season in his mighty right arm.
There's no question Strasburg wants to pitch; he's a competitor, a fighter between the lines. There is also no question that fans -- both casual and diehard -- would like to see those starts
But the Nats will do what's best for Strasburg, not necessarily what Strasburg wants and definitely not what the fans want. The Nationals would love to see him pitch more innings this season than last so that he can pitch more innings next season than this season. But if there is the slightest chance of injury, they'll put him on the disabled list so fast his head will spin.
That won't set well with fans who've paid top dollar for tickets to see his projected starts. I do understand the disappointment of Tuesday night's crowd. Who doesn't want to see Strasburg pitch, especially in person? I'd watch him knock over milk bottles at the county fair.
But a ticket to a baseball game is a ticket to a baseball game, period. It's not a money-back guarantee to see one particular player. If you buy a ticket to a Lady Gaga concert and Lady Gaga doesn't take the stage, then you ask for a refund. But in this case, we're talking about a team sport.
In truth, everything about a baseball game is subject to change. Players can be injured or traded or sent down, even minutes before the first pitch. "Bull Durham," about another hard-throwing pitching phenom, includes many pearls of wisdom, such as: "Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains. Think about that for a while."
Pleasing a large crowd that includes both fans and Strasburg looky-loos is a challenge for the Nats. Baseball fans won't boo Rizzo's caution, but part of Strasburg's raison d'être is to attract non-baseball fans, not only to sell more tickets but also to try to convert them into a more permanent kind of fan, the kind who will buy tickets without the allure of Strasburg on the mound. It's hard to make converts, however, when they walk out in the first inning.
And the Nats just aren't likely to blow out his shoulder in order to sell more tickets. Strasburg is a rare talent, and shoulder injuries can end careers. Even if a pitcher can come back from something like a labrum tear, he seldom gets all his velocity back. And if I can tear my rotator cuff, labrum and biceps tendon by doing nothing, think of the damage Strasburg can do. Every five days, he uses his right arm in ways the human body wasn't designed to do. The fact that he has 75 strikeouts in 54 1/3 big league innings is a testament to his breathtaking ability.
In "Bull Durham," Crash Davis tells Nuke LaLoosh, "When you were a baby, the gods reached down and turned your right arm into a thunderbolt."
He could have been talking to Strasburg. But the thunderbolt doesn't come with a lifetime guarantee.
And if the gods won't protect it, the Nats will.