BALTIMORE — Stephen Strasburg stretched his right arm over his corner locker in the visitors’ clubhouse at Camden Yards, revealing the long scar on his elbow as he began taking questions from a horde of reporters. He wasn’t supposed to talk to the media before Monday’s series opener against the Baltimore Orioles because he was supposed to start for the Washington Nationals and starters don’t talk before any game they pitch.
That plan changed over the weekend, when Strasburg told his bosses that his right elbow, the one with a Tommy John scar tattooed on it since 2010, was stiff three days after the worst start of his career extended his recent miserable stretch. He insisted he could pitch through the discomfort, but the Nationals are not willing to risk damaging the arm they committed $175 million to over the next seven years just three months ago, so they have shut him down and placed him on the 15-day disabled list with “right elbow soreness.”
The club made the announcement Monday afternoon, adding that A.J. Cole was recalled from Class AAA Syracuse to take Strasburg’s spot on the roster and the rotation. Cole, 24, will make his second career start Monday.
“I told him he hadn’t won anything yet,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “But we gotta look at the big picture on this. He’s going to be around for a long time, and hopefully he’ll be good in September and hopefully October.
Strasburg, Baker and General Manager Mike Rizzo echoed that the decision to sideline Strasburg is precautionary. It is Strasburg’s eighth career DL stint, but the first elbow-related setback since tearing his ulnar collateral ligament in 2010, which prompted the Tommy John surgery. Strasburg returned to start five games in 2011 and made 28 starts in 2012 before the Nationals made the controversial decision to shut him down before the playoffs.
The Nationals hold an 8½-game lead on the Miami Marlins in the National League East. They have the luxury to rest Strasburg and ensure he will be 100 percent for the postseason.
“We felt like the prudent thing to do — like we always have with our pitchers — was to give him this reset,” Rizzo said. “We’re going to put him on the DL rather than pitch through some routine inflammation and soreness.”
Rizzo said the team wasn’t aware of any elbow issues when it had Strasburg skip the All-Star Game and he is confident Strasburg’s elbow is structurally sound, though Strasburg hasn’t undergone an MRI exam since he disclosed the soreness.
“I don’t think we’re at the MRI stage right now,” Rizzo said. “If we did, it would just be a precautionary one, just to get another image. We have one from when he signed his extension, so we have a fairly current one. And we feel we have our arms around what’s going on there.”
The development follows a terrible three-start stretch for Strasburg. The right-hander yielded 19 runs across 11 2/3 innings — more runs than he allowed in his eight outings in June and July combined — for a 14.66 ERA in the three outings. The 19 runs represent 32.7 percent of the 58 runs he’s given up all season. His ERA during the 12-day span hiked from 2.63 to 3.59. Hitters batted .294 with an .822 OPS in the three outings after batting .145 with a .411 OPS in his first 20 starts.
Strasburg’s last outing was the worst of his career; the Colorado Rockies recorded nearly twice as many runs (nine) as outs (five) off him Wednesday. Despite the shockingly poor performances, Baker, pitching coach Mike Maddux and Strasburg all insisted Strasburg was healthy. Baker answered “no” when asked about injury concerns and pointed to the radar gun — Strasburg’s velocity was 94 to 96 mph Wednesday — as evidence. Strasburg said the ball “felt good” coming out of his hand.
The most notable difference in Strasburg in the three outings, according to Brooks Baseball, was his horizontal release point — the distance his arm is from his body when he releases the ball.
During the three starts, the release point moved closer to the first base side of the rubber, and therefore closer to his body. Changes in release point are often unintentional, and usually manifest themselves in a lack of fastball command — something Strasburg has shown during these the rough outings. A mechanical bad habit could explain the whole thing and could be the result of the elbow trouble.
Strasburg acknowledged Monday that he had been steadily losing flexibility since the all-star break and recovering between starts became a challenge. He added that, as a Tommy John surgery recipient, he is constantly learning how to navigate a season. He indicated that he will change his workout routine between starts to focus more on flexibility when he returns.
“I am 28 now,” Strasburg said. “I’m probably not going to be getting any stronger, so I just need to kind of change it around.”
Strasburg will continue running and doing shoulder exercises, so he won’t be completely shut down, but he isn’t throwing. The objective is to have him ready for October.
“He wants to pitch, and he knows how badly we need him,” Baker said. “But like I explained to him, ‘It’s not hero time yet.’ “