COMAK: Strasburg reaching his limit is inevitable

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The question came his way after six more innings were in the books. After Stephen Strasburg’s 2012 total reached 77 innings and inched closer to his season’s general halfway point. After his team asserted its viability as a contender once more and finished off a 6-0 road trip.

It was not an unfamiliar query.

“How difficult will it be if your team is where you want it to be and you’re not able to participate?” a reporter asked Strasburg last Wednesday. How difficult, essentially, will it be to know you’re taking your electrifying talent to the bench as your team battles on without you in September and, possibly, the playoffs?

“I try not to think about it,” Strasburg said, allowing a slight smirk that seemed to indicate that he, of course, thought about it often. “With the direction that we’re going and everything, it makes it even harder not to think about. I can’t control that.”

Then he said what everyone who has watched him pitch for the NL East-leading Nationals this season has been thinking.

“Hopefully,” Strasburg said, “things can change.”

But for the Nationals, for Strasburg, for 2012, they cannot.

With each frame that Strasburg tosses, it seems, calculators around the baseball world click. One more inning down. One fewer inning he’ll be able to pitch this season.

While vague on what the number of innings will be, the Nationals have been clear on this much: Strasburg will be held to a limit of some sort. For Jordan Zimmermann a year ago, coming off the same surgery, that was 161 1/3 innings. It’s not inconceivable to think Strasburg’s number will be around there.

In the meantime, though, when it will happen and how the Nationals can think of shutting down their ace in the heat of a pennant race has become one of baseball’s hottest topics. General manager Mike Rizzo has been asked about Strasburg’s innings limit so often he was quoted in the New York Post last week as telling a reporter: “You are killing me,” and vowing it’d be the last time he’d discuss it.

Many who’ve tackled the topic feel the Nationals will find some loophole. That they’ll discover later this season all the things they’ve said about the importance of keeping their starters on a five-day schedule are not that important. That a six-man rotation will become plausible. That the idea of shutting down Strasburg for a few weeks in late August and September to keep him under the limit for the playoffs will become more palatable.

But if they’re going to stand by their reasoning, they won’t.

Throughout this process, just as they did with Zimmermann in 2011, the Nationals have followed their medical team’s advice with regard to this limit. The people they’ve paid to make these decisions — including Dr. Lewis Yocum, who performed Strasburg’s surgery — have helped them arrive at the conclusion that allowing him to throw an unlimited number of innings this year is not wise.

This is the decision the organization has made for the health of the player. The decision made to ensure, as best they can, that he’ll spend more of the coming years in the rotation and not on the disabled list.

To recant on that decision because of where the team sits in the standings would be irresponsible and disingenuous.

Zimmermann didn’t enjoy being shut down. He didn’t enjoy the monotony, and he certainly didn’t enjoy watching his team take the field every night without him. But he has a 2.92 ERA in 83 1/3 healthy innings this season and is expected to be a horse in the rotation for years to come.

Strasburg, who starts Wednesday against Tampa Bay, might not like it either. The baseball world might not like it. His teammates might not like it, knowing they’ll be without their ace as they make a playoff push. But without his innings now, they might not be in that position at all. And ignoring what’s best for his health, for the long-term, just isn’t feasible.

“Hopefully, when we get to where we want to be, somehow I’m a part of it still,” Strasburg said. “But I can’t really worry about that right now. We’ve still got a long ways to go.”

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