Washington Nationals should shut down Stephen Strasburg for the season

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 23, 2010; 12:04 AM

Stephen Strasburg shouldn't just miss his next start. The Nats should shut him down for the year. Two warning lights in a month - first shoulder, then forearm - are enough. When an Indy car is running in the red, you may try to finish a race. You can get a new engine. But there's only one Jeezus arm. Don't wait for it to blow.

Strasburg did light throwing on Sunday with no discomfort and said he'd pitched through similar forearm pain while at San Diego State without even leaving the game. Nonetheless, everybody in baseball, not just Nats fans, is permitted to hold their breath.

After watching Strasburg grimace in pain after a fifth-inning change-up on Saturday and leave the game quickly, we should consider ourselves sufficiently warned. We won't know until an MRI comes back, and, even after that, until a possible visit to a specialist has been completed, whether the game's hottest young star has dodged a flexor tendon bullet or taken a direct career hit.

Most people probably don't expend their prayers, or even deep concern, on baseball players with balky arms. Especially when they've already been guaranteed more money than most people can dream of in a lifetime. But I may bend my rule. If I had more than 10 fingers, I'd cross them all for Strasburg.

Morning in Philadelphia seldom brings good news and cheer. But on Sunday, Strasburg indicated his arm felt much better than after his 56th scary pitch. The word "strain," which means you need rest, was used, rather than "rupture," which means surgery and, in some cases, a year or more to recover (John Patterson).

However, one gesture by pitching coach Steve McCatty on Saturday night spoke for a million fans when he slammed shut the metal door to the bullpen phone with frustrated disgust. In July, the best arm of a generation missed a start with shoulder stiffness in pre-game warm-ups and went on the disabled list. Now, he's been pulled in mid-inning while in undisguised pain.

For now, the correct presumption is that Strasburg, at least at 22, is more Waterford crystal than forged steel. This is the fourth time in less than a year as a pro that he's missed a start. In 14 years, Livan Hernandez has never missed a turn. Of course, when he was 22, he threw 95 mph. Maybe that's why he can't anymore.

The conventional wisdom for young elite pitchers is to "get them to age 24," as Strasburg's agent Scott Boras said last week. Then you take off the training wheels, cover your eyes and hope. That's still two years away. This year, including spring training, Strasburg has worked 132 innings. He's also thrown between starts more than he did in college and worked on four days rest, not six.

In the face of this, the Nats organization's goal of 160 innings is irrelevant. Every pitcher's arm reacts differently to pro rigors. One rule doesn't fit all. And Strasburg's arm is telling us its opinion.

Sen. Jim "I never turned down the ball" Bunning may disagree with such namby-pamby coddling. Another fine reason to do it.

Worried fans can mutter "Kerry Wood" and "Mark Prior," all they want. But don't forget Jim Palmer and Roger Clemens, too. After beating Sandy Koufax, 1-0, in the World Series in '66, Palmer missed almost two full seasons at 21 and 22. Clemens had season-ending shoulder surgery in his second year as New England wept. So far, Strasburg has had an inflamed shoulder and a tweaked forearm. That's just pitching. So, come in off the ledge.

However, we've reached the point where something more than mild caution is a sufficient response. GM Mike Rizzo has denied premature reports that the Nats have decided to shut down Strasburg for the season. But that decision should come soon.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company