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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.

Many would like to see Strasburg finish his year as planned with perhaps five more starts. (Family friends from out of town were psyched that we had tickets for Thursday night.) But we should remember last season when rookie Jordan Zimmermann had an elbow problem. The only words used were "tender" or "stiff." He missed just one start. Then he needed elbow ligament replacement surgery. Despite care, medical consultation and technology, he went from okay to Tommy John surgery in a blink.

Whether the valuable arm belongs to Chad Cordero, Shawn Hill, Patterson or Zimmermann, everything seems to be semi-hunky-dory with Nat hurlers right up until it isn't.

Is there a pattern here? The first couple of years in town, the Nats were a bit old school, trying to win, or at least not lose too much, for their new town. But pitch limits for starters, especially young ones, and rules about not using relievers more than three days in a row, have been in place for several years. Nats' training methods and medical practices seem mainstream or conservative.

Still, with injuries, or re-injuries to old injuries, for Strasburg, Zimmermann, Jason Marquis, Craig Stammen, Scott Olsen and others, the Nats should probably do an off-season review. Are they just seeing the normal (high) attrition rate for all pitchers? Is that exacerbated by the fact that, for years, almost every arm they acquired was available because it was already considered damaged goods? On the positive side, in six years in the Nats system, John Lannan has had almost perfect pitching health.

One additional reason to be careful with Strasburg is that his most improved pitch this season, but also the one that he throws differently than he did in college, is his diving, 89 to 92 mph change-up. In an earlier baseball generation, it would have been called a dazzling screwball. Nobody says "screwball" anymore because it became synonymous with arm injury.

If Strasburg's old change-up caused him pain at times, and his revised changeup presumably requires slightly different technique, shouldn't a flashing light be going off now? First pro year, less rest, more innings, a trip to the DL and now a platinum-plated zillion-dollar prodigy grabs his arm and waves for everybody to please come join him at the mound 'cause This Hurts.

Some will say the Nats are babying Strasburg. Others will say he's not tough enough, or shouldn't show pain, or say he "can't get loose." Some are stupid; others are ever dumber.

If the Nats use caution now, they'll have plenty of seasons to prove that their methods were wise. And Strasburg can show, for many seasons, that the competitiveness he showed for 41/3 innings on Saturday night - as he mowed down the over-matched back-to-back World Series Phillies - is his true nature.

This is no time for "spit on it and rub." This is the moment for, "Thanks, Stephen. It's been great. See you next spring in Viera."

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