Strasburg gives the Nationals a chance to contend . . . until they stop him

NEW YORK -- Stephen Strasburg is as good a reason as any to believe in the Nationals as a contender.

He's also -- sorry, Jon Heyman -- as good a reason as any not to pick the Nationals to win the National League East.

Two starts into his first season as a true No. 1 starter, the 23-year-old Strasburg looks the part, as Wednesday's 4-0 win over Johan Santana and the Mets showed. At a time in baseball when Justin Verlander is considered the best pitcher in the game, Strasburg is the closest thing there is to being another Verlander.

"Very similar," teammate Mark DeRosa said.

But the Tigers expect 30-plus starts and 200-plus innings from Verlander (who topped the majors with 251 innings last year). The Nationals expect to shut Strasburg down sometime during the second half of the season.

General manager Mike Rizzo said Wednesday that the plan is the same as the one he described this spring: no specific innings limit, but no chance that Strasburg pitches a full season.

No other contender has a similar restriction on its ace.

Can the Nationals be a true contender with a restriction on theirs?

And make no mistake, Strasburg is already this team's ace. He thinks that way. They think that way.

The Nationals have won each of his first two starts, allowing them to reach the six-game mark with a winning record for the first time in their eight-year history in Washington. Strasburg has a 0.69 ERA, having allowed just one run in 13 innings, with 14 strikeouts.

He's what Santana once was for the Mets, and before that for the Twins. Now 33 years old and coming off shoulder surgery, Santana is different now ("a grinder," DeRosa said).

Santana was the one held under 100 pitches Wednesday. Strasburg was the guy who stayed out there in the sixth, even when the Mets had two on with one out, even when the score was just 1-0, the Strasburg pitch count was already at 102 and the Mets' cleanup hitter was at the plate.

"I probably would have had to strangle him to get the ball out of his hands," manager Davey Johnson said. "I didn't want to fight him on the mound."

That pretty much describes an ace, too -- especially when you see Strasburg reward that vote of confidence by striking out Jason Bay and getting Josh Thole on an inning-ending fly ball.

Strasburg loved it, loved the idea of being the guy trusted with the game on the line.

"That's what all the great pitchers in the league do," said Strasburg, who clearly aims to be in that class. "That's the fun part about being a starter."

When Strasburg first arrived on the scene two years ago, he was uncomfortable with the attention. He looks the part much more now, and the electric stuff that drew all that attention is still very much there.

He has Verlander-like stuff, and also a Verlander-like drive for perfection.

"I want to be that guy, that horse in the rotation," Strasburg said Wednesday.

He's getting there, with the help of Johnson, a manager who has the trust of his general manager. Rizzo said this spring that he doesn’t need to put Strasburg on a pitch count, because he trusts Johnson's experience.

The innings limit, whatever it ends up being, is still there. Johnson says Strasburg will remain in the regular rotation until the moment they shut him down ("I read all the pundits' views, and rejected all of them," Johnson said), and pitching coach Steve McCatty said he has cautioned Strasburg to avoid thinking about when his season will end.

"Don't even think about it," McCatty said he told Strasburg. "Go pitch. When we tell you you're done, you're done."

When he pitches, Strasburg gives the Nationals a big edge. He gives them the true ace that any true contending team wants.

When he pitches, they look the part.

But what will happen when they don't let him pitch?

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