x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Putting you right out of the picture

The decision to mothball the Washington Nationals' Stephen Strasburg ahead of the play-offs has raised more questions than answers.

The Washington Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg, right, will need to get used to the view from the dugout.
The Washington Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg, right, will need to get used to the view from the dugout.

They were joking, right? Or perhaps the Washington Nationals were playing mind games when they suggested back in the spring that their star pitcher might be shut down weeks before closing day.

Come on. The Nationals would not really tell their 24-year-old ace, to whom they are paying US$3 million (Dh11m), "Nice job, kid. Now enjoy the rest of the season from the bench, cheering on your hard-working teammates. Post-game showers are optional."

Seriously?

When first disclosed, the plan for Stephen Strasburg raised few eyebrows. After all, while the Nationals are on the rise, the US capital is 79 years removed from its previous World Series appearance.

If the Nationals were wallowing under .500 come Labour Day, so what if the plug was yanked prematurely on Strasburg?

The funny thing is that up to yesterday, baseball's best record belonged to the Nationals.

They are assured one play-off game and most likely will partake in plenty, unless their ample lead in the National League East vanishes.

No matter. Once Strasburg pitches today and again on Wednesday, the Nationals insist he will be discontinued for the season - three weeks early.

That makes Mike Rizzo the most controversial figure in baseball, (non-retired division), an odd distinction given that even avid baseball fans would be pressed to identify him without a name tag.

Rizzo is the Nationals' general manager. He has researched the wear and tear of accumulative innings on undeveloped arms as if the subject were a scholarly paper.

He has blown the whistle on a half-dozen other Nationals, notably the pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, in seasons past.

To some in the sport's inner circle, limiting Strasburg comes as no surprise.

He was among the youngest pitchers to undergo Tommy John surgery, in which an overstressed ligament near the elbow is replaced by a tendon borrowed from elsewhere in the body.

There are many cautionary tales of early burnouts, none sadder than the supremely gifted Mark Prior.

He was 22 in 2003 while logging nearly 235 innings, a 40 per cent bump over his rookie season. He became acquainted with Mr John - the operation, not the person - in 2004 and was washed out of baseball two years later.

Before this season's first pitch, Rizzo established a ceiling for Strasburg of 160 to 170 innings. Every five games, almost without fail, Strasburg has gone to the mound to pitch.

In all but three appearances, he has been lifted before the seventh inning. Never has he experienced the eighth.

As the Nationals dug in their spikes atop the division, scepticism swelled on whether Rizzo would adhere to the blueprint. Strasburg was mingling with the league leaders in wins, strikeouts and earned-run average.

Not only was a quality start all but guaranteed, fans beyond the team's loyal core paid to see him.

The Nationals avoided broaching the sensitive topic with Strasburg until last week, when the noise level grew too high to ignore.

Davey Johnson, the manager, broke what Strasburg heard as bad news: two more games, then call it a year.

The line of second-guessers, a few from the Nationals clubhouse, is wrapped around the corner.

Why not move him to the bullpen, perhaps as a closer?

Why not bubble wrap him now, with the Nationals securely in the post-season, and bring him back next month?

Why, in hindsight, were his starts not spaced out so that his innings limit coincided with the play-offs instead of the first week of September?

To those questions, Rizzo would say that pitchers are creatures of habit whose work patterns, if effective, should stay constant. Strasburg is a laser thrower with especially taxing mechanics, and Rizzo locked him into a rigid schedule to facilitate recovery between appearances.

"It is a debatable subject," Rizzo said, "but most of the people who have weighed in on this know about 10 per cent of the information that we know."

If the ill-informed have a legitimate criticism, it is that Strasburg could have been pulled sooner from games in which the Nats were safely ahead.

Then again, the sum total of those saved batters barely would add up to one extra start.

Rizzo can stick to his conviction more comfortably because, even minus Strasburg, his team's pitching is very strong.

National League line-ups will never be mistaken for Murderers' Row - the famous Yankees team of 1927 - so it is easy to envision the US capital celebrating the city's first World Series appearance since the White House newcomer Franklin D Roosevelt was introducing the New Deal to combat the Great Depression.

One of many who would label this a dumb deal said: "I think it's wrong. He is a valuable asset … but it doesn't mean you are going to make his career longer."

The speaker: former pitcher Tommy John, namesake and original beneficiary of the surgery that has extended careers.

Some day, the Nationals right-hander might be the namesake of the Stephen Strasburg Approach: treat your prized pitcher gingerly from day one, then salt him away in September.

Hear a noise? That is from baseball old-timers rolling over in their graves.

 

sports@thenational.ae