- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 27, 2009

A healthy debate is shaping up in baseball about the number of pitches a hurler should throw in a start.

Nolan Ryan, the former fireballer and current president of the Texas Rangers, spurred the discussion with a plan to get pitchers in his organization to work deeper into games and to scrap what has evolved into a 100-pitch barrier for starters.

This could be a case of an old-school pitcher who doesn’t understand why the game can’t be played the way it was back in his day.

Ryan was a freak of nature: He pitched 27 years in the major leagues. He appeared in 807 games, starting 773. He threw 5,386 innings and 222 complete games - 72 of which came in a three-year period from 1972 to 1974.

Ryan’s experiment is a worthy one - the young pitchers so carefully nurtured via the pitch count haven’t stayed healthy anyway. It’s almost a given these days that a young pitcher will spend time on the disabled list with arm-related problems in the first five years of his career.

Former Atlanta Braves ace John Smoltz, who made his first start for the Boston Red Sox on Thursday night after coming back from shoulder surgery last year, has combined with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine for almost 13,000 innings in their careers. Even in the era in which pitch counts and relievers began to reduce the starters’ workload, the trio combined for 218 complete games.

“You’ve seen in the last year or two we haven’t been able to go two weeks without putting a starter on the injured list,” said Nationals president Stan Kasten, who served as president of the Braves during the Smoltz-Glavine-Maddux era. “In Atlanta, we went a decade without putting a starter on the injured list. Those guys never got hurt.”

Ryan’s plans represent a monumental change in the way today’s pitchers are handled - he can’t just one day implement them in the major league dugout.

The process must begin from the ground up, training young pitchers when they enter the organization to stretch out longer and handle more of a workload. Ryan’s experiment will take time - as will determining whether it works.

You won’t find any mad scientists in the Nationals organization. The young pitchers are being handled gingerly when it comes to pitch counts and, ultimately, innings pitched.

Jordan Zimmermann left a game not long ago after about 95 pitches. John Lannan exited after 106 pitches from a game in which he struggled but still kept his team competitive.

Manager Manny Acta makes clear that he will protect the club’s young arms, believing too many innings for pitchers without much major league experience puts them at risk.

It’s not just Acta’s preference, either. It’s Nationals policy - one that might frustrate fans later this season, when Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler and Shairon Martis could find themselves shut down, pitching significantly fewer innings or even pitching at Class AAA Syracuse.

The upside is that Nationals fans likely will see the door swing the other way as well.

Collin Balester and Garrett Mock both could return to the major league club, perhaps coming off stellar minor league outings.

Balester has been lights out of late, going 5-0 with a 2.00 ERA in his last five starts. Mock, back in a starting role, is 2-0 with 0.60 ERA in his last two starts, with 17 strikeouts in 15 innings pitched. Matt Chico, progressing in his comeback from elbow surgery, also is a possibility.

The club’s rotation might sport a different appearance in August and September.

The eyes of the Nationals are strictly looking forward and not toward Texas, where Nolan Ryan is trying to go back to the future.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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