Why Reactivating Strasburg Now Would Be Far Bigger Risk Than Going 200 Innings

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Why Reactivating Strasburg Now Would Be Far Bigger Risk Than Going 200 Innings

It's been almost one month since the Washington Nationals did what they said they would do all season long and shut down ace starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg for the year.

Yet whether it's because fans, analysts and pundits still can't quite believe the Nationals actually sidelined their best pitcher voluntarily or they want to see an October surprise in something besides a presidential campaign, there's still the hope that Strasburg will pitch in the playoffs. 

Strasburg has done nothing to shoot down those dreams, perhaps because he's still hoping that he'll get to pitch in the postseason. Even if he doesn't get a start, maybe he's used out of the bullpen when the Nats need someone to pitch more than one inning of relief. It could be like Randy Johnson coming in to mow down the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series! 

But would it be far more dangerous to the health of Strasburg's surgically repaired right elbow to ramp him back up after he's been shut down for a month? The Nationals made their decision and have stuck to it, presumably with good reason. 

One of the reasons the Nationals decided to shut down Strasburg when they did is because he appeared to be wearing down and his pitching was increasingly getting worse.

In two of his final three starts this season, Strasburg gave up five runs, lasting five innings or less. Before the All-Star break, he gave up four runs in two of his 17 appearances. After MLB's midseason hiatus, he gave up four runs or more in four of 11 starts. 

Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images
Davey Johnson claimed media scrutiny wore down Stephen Strasburg.

But Nats manager Davey Johnson claimed he finally made the call to end Strasburg's season because he thought his young pitcher was wearing down under the mental burden of facing frequent questions about his impending shutdown from the media. 

Perhaps that was an attempt by Johnson to distract from any physical issues that necessitated the decision. You media guys won't leave him alone! But it was also an indication that the grind of the long season—the first full season of his major league career—had taken its toll on Strasburg.

After nearly a month off from a regular pitching rotation and hanging around the Nationals in virtual obscurity, is Strasburg refreshed and recharged? Judging from his appearance on MLB Network Monday night (Oct. 1) after the Nationals clinched the NL East title, he seemed much more comfortable with the media. 

MLB Network analyst Mitch Williams asked Strasburg if there were "any covert operations going on" regarding him pitching in the postseason. 

"Uh, you know, we’ll have to wait and see," Strasburg responded (as transcribed by DC Sports Bog). "I’ve been playing catch and everything. But I think this team is very, very capable of taking it all the way."

What didn't escape notice, however, was the sly smile coming from Strasburg during his coy reply. MLB Network's Harold Reynolds called it a smirk.

"I just know you too well, man, you’re too competitive," Reynolds said to Strasburg as he broke into a bigger smile. "I don’t know, I’m not buying it. Am I on to something? C’mon Stephen, let me know, am I on to something?”

Is this the smile of someone who knows something we don't? (MLB.com)

Strasburg wouldn't take the bait, yet he didn't say that he definitely wouldn't be pitching either. That's going to encourage people to start getting ideas about what could happen. 

Maybe Strasburg was just trying to be funny. Perhaps he was playing along with the MLB Network crew needling him about not being able to pitch in the postseason. Or maybe he's just hoping that the Nationals really could change their minds about this whole shutdown thing. 

The Nationals can shut down all of these questions and whispers by keeping Strasburg off their postseason roster. He can't pitch if he's not eligible. According to remarks Johnson made to a local sports talk radio station (as tweeted by MASN's Byron Kerr), that's exactly what the Nats plan to do. 

With that, all talk of Strasburg pitching during the playoffs should effectively end.

But Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo already stated that the team had no intention of pitching Strasburg after shutting him down. To do so could cause even more damage than continuing to pitch him through the end of the regular season and push him toward 200 innings. 

When ESPN's Outside the Lines (via Jayson Stark) mentioned this as a possibility to Rizzo, he said everyone the team had consulted warned that bringing Strasburg after a September shutdown would be a bad idea. 

"Because every injury expert that we have spoken to (says) the effect of shutting a pitcher down and then ramping him back up and having him throw a full go is much more dangerous than having him pitch through the season and shutting him down," Rizzo said.

As I wrote at the time, that explanation should make sense to anyone involved in any sort of workout regiment or athletic pursuit. If you lift weights and progress in your strength training to the point where you can bench press 200 pounds, you can't take a month off then go back into the gym and lift that same amount of weight again. 

Rob Carr/Getty Images
As much as he'd like to, Stephen Strasburg will not pitch in the playoffs.

Strasburg said he's been playing catch. To make a Captain Obvious statement, that's not the same as pitching in a ballgame against major league hitters.

It still seems inexplicable that the Nationals won't use Strasburg in the playoffs. One of the questions to be answered during the postseason is whether or not the Nats cost themselves a chance at winning a World Series by preventing their best pitcher from making a contribution. 

But there's no going back now. The Nationals have painted themselves into the proverbial corner. They've made their bed. Use whatever other cliche you'd prefer. They have made a choice—presumably a very tough one—and now have to live with the consequences. The obvious hope is that the Nats don't end up regretting it. 

 

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