WASHINGTON – Stephen Strasburg chuckled the moment the subject was broached. His response sounded as if it had been memorized off a note card.
“I have no clue how many innings I’m going to throw this year,” he said. “I’ve answered that question multiple times, and nobody’s said anything to me. I feel great right now.”
The All-Star right-hander keeps hearing the question because he’s in the middle of a real head-scratcher. If the Washington Nationals are still looking like World Series contenders in September, will they really follow through with the plan to shut down their ace a month early?
That’s the plan, and it’s the accepted medical norm for a pitcher coming back from Tommy John elbow-reconstruction surgery. The plug will be pulled at around 160 innings, just as it was last year for Tommy John-comeback teammate Jordan Zimmermann, whose season came to an abrupt halt when he hit 161 innings on Aug. 28.
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But this year’s Nationals hit the break at 15 games over .500 and with a four-game lead in the National League East – and Strasburg having thrown 100 innings, including a scoreless frame in Tuesday night’s All-Star Game. Remember, no Washington major league team has made the postseason since 1933.
The Strasburg plan seemed OK in spring training, when optimistic scenarios had the club perhaps in the mix for the brand new second wild-card berth, but now they might literally have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give the city a championship.
“Last year we almost got to .500, and I felt for sure the progression here was we could come close to winning 90 games if everything fell into place and we started doing the things I knew we were capable of doing,” manager Davey Johnson said. “We got us more arms during the offseason, and they really helped me with the bench. There are more weapons here now to where we have progressed more rapidly.”
Regardless, the Nationals aren’t budging on the Strasburg plan – at least not so far. General manager Mike Rizzo figures this young roster is poised to be a contender for years to come, so there’s no use risking a gifted talent such as Strasburg by pushing him too hard with a freshly reconstructed elbow.
Johnson said he already has looked at September to figure out how to approach it without his best pitcher.
“I was curious as to who we were playing and what our schedule was that last month – absent Strasburg,” Johnson said. “What type of pitcher might fit in best for going against the clubs that we’re going to play.”
Strasburg threw 99 innings in 17 starts before the break, going 9-4 with a 2.82 ERA. At that pace, he would hit his limit in early September.
But it’s not as if the Nationals would collapse without him. They’ve had the top rotation in the majors for much of the season with fellow All-Star Gio Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler all sporting ERAs under 4.00.
And the Nationals have managed to win without everyone on board. Catcher Wilson Ramos is out for the season. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, closer Drew Storen and outfielders Michael Morse and Jayson Werth have spent extended time either on the disabled list or hobbled with injuries.
“We’ve weathered a pretty rough storm,” Johnson said, “so the schedule and who we play in the second half doesn’t look that daunting to me. …I’m much more comfortable and much more relaxed, believe it or not, coming into the second half.”
Even if he doesn’t have Strasburg all the way to the end.