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Nationals Should Compromise On Stephen Strasburg


Pitch on, Stephen Strasburg. I do not believe the Washington Nationals should shut down the ace hurler for the year when he hits a certain selected innings count. Last I heard teams in Major League baseball are supposed to play to win. Benching one of your best players for the duration doesn’t fit the criteria.

This issue is going to be a matter of a heated debate that will get hotter and hotter during the closing weeks of the regular season and especially during the playoffs when the Nationals qualify, which they will. It’s one thing to lose a top player to injury and soldier on without him. It’s one thing to lose a top player because of his stupidity of getting caught in a drug case (that would be you, Melky Cabrera). It’s quite another to simply refuse to play a guy because you think he could get hurt.

Right now the Nationals are one of the feel-good stories of the 2012 season. We all thought that they would be an improved team this year, but I don’t remember hearing an outpouring of sentiment suggesting that they were going to win the National League East (which they should do, barring a late collapse on the order of what we saw by the Red Sox and Braves last year in September), or that they would post the best record in baseball, which as of Monday morning, they had.

These are the never-been-good-before Nationals playing in a city that is on its third Major League baseball franchise, all known for their ineptitude. The last time a Washington Major League team, the original Washington Senators, competed in a post-season game was 1933. Given that one other premier sport in town, national politics, has devolved into rugby, that the pro football Redskins have been lousy lately, and the NBA Bullets and NHL Capitals have never challenged for the fans’ hearts, the Nationals have made local sports fans giddy. They are entertaining the crazy notion that the Nationals can win the World Series.

One reason for Washington’s success is the spectacular pitching of Strasburg. He and Gio Gonzalez are aces 1 and 1A. Strasburg is 14-5 with a 2.91 earned run average, precisely the kind of stardom predicted for him coming out of San Diego State. However, last year Strasburg had arm problems and underwent Tommy John surgery. As a result, the team does not want him to throw more than 160 innings this year. He is sitting on 139 1/3 and the plan in place is to just let him hit 160 and then go on vacation until next year.

Wrong approach. The Nationals are going to tell their fans that they are going to try to win the National League pennant without one of their best players. They are going to tell Strasburg if they get to the World Series, he can’t play. They are going to tell the rest of his teammates that although this may be the only time in their lives they get a sniff of the World Series, they are not going to pull out all of the stops to win it. There have already been some rumblings from other players about this idea and I don’t blame them. Neither the Nationals nor Strasburg can count on getting this close to the grand prize again. There are no guarantees.

Given how concerned the Nationals are about Strasburg’s long-term health and their focus on being very careful about how much he extends his arm, yet offering proper respect to the game, their fans, their other players, they need a new plan. Plan B should begin immediately with Strasburg skipping the occasional start. When he does pitch he should throw no more than six innings, unless he’s pitching a no-hitter (which could happen). There are only five weeks or so left in the regular season, so the team should be able to manipulate Strasburg’s innings so he doesn’t overdo it.

By overdo it, I don’t mean hitting the magic number of 160 exactly. If he ends up with 163 innings, no big deal. The 160 isn’t a concrete wall number. Like any other pitcher Strasburg can go out tomorrow and snap something in his arm in warm-ups.

It would be really something if the Nationals shut down Strasburg and the team gets to the World Series anyway, but loses and the players and fans are stuck with What-if. Or Washington goes on to win the World Series without Strasburg, and then never gets back to the big show. He’d end up resenting management for the rest of his career.

There is a better answer than flat-out shutting Strasburg down. If the Nationals are creative enough they will figure it out.