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Fatigue, hype prompt Nationals to shut down Stephen Strasburg early
You could see it on the mound Friday night, where Stephen Strasburg pitched just three innings and allowed five earned runs against the Miami Marlins.
You could feel it in the Nationals' clubhouse, where video cameras lurked and questions about Strasburg hung over the team like storm clouds.
The Strasburg saga was taking its toll.
Nationals' manager Davey Johnson said Saturday morning that he had informed Strasburg that his 2012 season had come to an end. Strasburg was originally slated to make one more start, at New York on Sept. 12. But after Friday night's outing, and the media circus that has continually followed the team, Johnson decided the time was now.
"I feel it's hard for him, as it would be anybody, to get mentally totally committed in a ballgame," Johnson said. "And he's reached his innings limit that was set two years ago, so we can get past this and talk about other things for a change."
The decision came as a shock to Strasburg, who has never been pleased with the plan to end his season early.
"Honestly, I'm not too happy about it. I want to keep pitching out there," he said. "But as of right now, I think I've got some world renowned doctors, one of them Dr. (Lewis) Yocum, he resurrected my career. I gotta listen to him and I gotta trust him."
Strasburg had possibly the worst start of his career Friday. His velocity was there, touching 97 miles per hour at times, but the familiar crispness of his pitches was missing, as was his mental focus.
The club's decision to shut down Strasburg has been a topic of national debate, especially as the Nationals have climbed to the top of the National League. Columnists and pundits from around the country have thrown in their two cents, and questions about the situation were even asked of President Barack Obama's press secretary last week.
Johnson said the hype was suffocating.
"I'm a firm believer that this game is 90-95 percent mental. And [Strasburg] is only human, and I don't know how anybody can be totally mentally concentrating on the job at hand with the media hype to this thing," he said. "I think that we'd be risking more sending him back out."
General manager Mike Rizzo and pitching coach Steve McCatty agreed. The two met with Johnson Friday and decided that another start may do more harm than good. Strasburg had already pitched 159 1/3 innings on the season, and adding another five or six innings wouldn't make much of a difference.
Johnson spoke to Strasburg in the training room Saturday morning and told him his season was done.
"After yesterday's start, we just figured that mentally and physically, Stephen looked like he was fatigued," Rizzo explained. "We said let's pull the plug today and move on with the season and try and finish the season off positive."
There is nothing positive about the ordeal for Strasburg, however. The former No. 1 overall selection has lived up to his billing all season, showing no signs of the surgically repaired ligament in his right arm that initially sparked the shutdown plan. He finished his 2012 campaign with a 15-6 record and 3.16 ERA.
"You don't grow up dreaming of playing in the big leagues to get shut down when the games start to matter," Strasburg said. "It's going to be a tough one to swallow, but like I said, all I can do is be the best teammate possible to these guys."
He continued: "It sucks. I've just got to move forward. I've got to be here for this team now."
The Nationals showed similar precaution with Jordan Zimmermann last season, shutting him down in August despite his effectiveness at the top of the team's rotation. Rizzo said the two showed similar tendencies in their first seasons after Tommy John surgery.
"Other than the lack of consistency, they're probably similar. That's typical of Tommy John rehab patients," Rizzo said. "Often times, it's not the velocity or the arm strength that's the first sign of fatigue. It's the delivery. Is he online, or is he falling off? Can he finish his pitches? You take all those things into consideration, and it very much resembled Jordan's season last year."
Despite Strasburg's reaction, Rizzo said the process has been "business as usual." Saturday morning was simply the fulfillment of a plan that was originally laid out in February and has been followed ever since. That plan was the product of an underlying philosophy that the Nationals have used on all of their players, regardless of potential, time of year or place in the standings.
Strasburg understands and said he will not fight the decision. But he's also unsure that he'll ever be able to accept. The easiest way of dealing with this situation always was to look the other way, but now Strasburg has nowhere left to look.
"He's emotional about it," Johnson said. "He's one heck of a pitcher and a heck of a competitor. I know he's been struggling with it for a few weeks, and I know he doesn't sleep good thinking about it."
"I mean, I'm mentally worn out seeing it all myself."
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
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