National Columnist

No one knows the right call on Strasburg, but Nats playing it smart by shutting him down

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The Nationals don't want Strasburg to be the next Kerry Wood. (US Presswire)  
The Nationals don't want Strasburg to be the next Kerry Wood. (US Presswire)  

What are the Nationals thinking? They're not thinking. They can't be. Not if they're serious -- are you serious? -- about shutting down Stephen Strasburg during a season headed for late October. They'd shut him down to protect his arm, but this is the World Series we're talking about. In Washington. A chance like this comes along once in, well, this is the first time a chance like this has come along in decades in Washington.

And the Nationals are going to shut down an ace pitcher? Just to be safe? That's stupid.

That's one way to look at it.

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But there's another way to see it, and through this prism the Nationals would be morons to let Stephen Strasburg pitch the whole season. This guy is too young, too valuable, too vulnerable to be allowed to pitch a crazy number of innings so soon after Tommy John surgery. If the Nationals want Strasburg to become the next Kerry Wood or Mark Prior, then by all means, keep throwing him out there every fifth day. Maybe the team wins the World Series this year. Maybe not. But it's an absolute lock that Strasburg's career would be thrown onto the table like a pair of dice if he were allowed to pitch until this season ends, whenever that may be.

It's black or white, this decision, and everyone's an expert.

The Strasburg Shutdown is fascinating because this type of temperance just doesn't happen in baseball, where more is always better. Some muscles are good, so let's get bigger. Some supplements? Let's take more. Let's take Andro and steroids and HGH until Barry Bonds is hitting a home run every ninth time he steps to the plate. Fun!

Quality pitching is good, but more quality is better, so Mets reliever Pedro Feliciano made 86 appearances in 2008 -- most in the majors -- then made 88 in 2009. In 2010 he made 94 appearances.

In 2011 and 2012? Zero. More wasn't better. Turns out, 268 appearances in three seasons reduced Feliciano's left arm to ashes. It doesn't belong on a mound anymore. It belongs in an urn on someone's mantle.

After striking out 11 in seven innings of a win over the Mets on Wednesday, Stephen Strasburg is 11-4 with a 2.76 ERA and 151 strikeouts in 118 1/3 innings. It's not a Cy Young season but it's close, and Strasburg is doing it for a team with the best record in the National League.

And that team is dead set on shutting him down. Nobody knows when -- Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo says there is no magic number of innings, that the decision to shelve Strasburg will be made by Rizzo and Rizzo alone, and that it will be made by feel -- but it's coming.

"It's my decision and I've made it," Rizzo said last week. "There will be no going back on the decision."

Fascinating. The reaction from everyone else? Also fascinating. Armchair experts, people with no idea how to handle such a dilemma, know what the Nationals should do. They should do exactly what they're doing, of course, and be cautious with Strasburg. No, they shouldn't -- they should go for the World Series, because how often does an opportunity like this come along?

It's an argument without an answer, because it's an argument based on hypotheticals and future performances and the vagaries of the human body. Some guys pitch forever, others can't. Nolan Ryan averaged 32 starts a season for 22 years, until he was 45 years old. Kerry Wood? He went to the disabled list 16 times in 14 seasons.

It's a crapshoot, the forest and even this one individual tree. And if I'm the Nationals, I'm shutting down Strasburg too. That doesn't mean I'm right. It means I'm guessing, just like anyone else would be guessing -- even Mike Rizzo will be guessing -- but caution beats aggression in this particular circumstance.

Throwing caution to the wind by throwing Strasburg every fifth day is a meathead move. Put it this way: Rob Dibble would approve. He's the guy who mocked Strasburg for complaining of arm soreness in 2010 -- "Suck it up," Dibble said -- when the arm soreness was a torn ligament that required Tommy John surgery. But even non-meatheads are coming out in favor of Strasburg sucking it up, no less a non-meathead than retired pitcher John Smoltz, who has suggested Strasburg fake injuries -- "a blister one day, maybe a hangnail the next" -- to save innings and be available into October.

Which is as meathead as it gets.

Here's a pitcher with a recently devastating arm injury, but still a future that looks as good as any in the game, so here's what he should do: Pitch irregularly, throwing 100-mph heaters and 91-mph sliders with four days off between some starts, six days between others, maybe a nice little 10-day break from time to time. What could possibly go wrong?

Everything could go wrong, and not just a little bit wrong. Strasburg isn't just a starting pitcher who, if he gets hurt, can be replaced. The Cubs never replaced Wood, never replaced Prior, never won a damn thing -- not a single playoff game -- once those guys started getting injured in the mid-2000s.

The Nationals are young and loaded. Sure things don't exist in baseball, but Washington is the most logical bet to be the next NL dynasty. This season started out as a shock, but not anymore. It's not a shock, not a fluke. It's the first season of what could be a long run atop the NL East for the best young team in baseball.

As for Strasburg, he's as rare -- and valuable -- as a Faberge egg. But the meatheads want the Nationals to cross their fingers, close their eyes and keep pushing Strasburg out to the mound? The best way to handle this situation, and this once-in-a-lifetime pitcher, is to hope for the best?

That's a fantasy. That's a nursery rhyme. And the Nationals have no interest in turning Stephan Strasburg into Humpty Dumpty.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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