- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 1, 2013


Little arouses the anxieties of red cap-wearing Washingtonians more than the sight of Stephen Strasburg shaking his right arm.

The last pitch the Nationals right-hander threw in Atlanta on Monday night touched 98 miles per hour. But that wasn’t enough — oh, not even close — to quell the wave of near-panic over his pitching arm’s health.

All thanks to a couple of those barely noticeable arm shakes during the six-inning outing during which his fastball command wavered and manager Davey Johnson offering the possibility of — gasp — forearm tightness. That was enough to unleash a wave of unease, as if the city faced a few inches of snow or, gulp, Robert Griffin III’s ongoing right knee rehabilitation somehow fell short of superhuman.

Actually, Strasburg is fine. The pitcher said so. Same with Johnson. Same with general manager Mike Rizzo.

The explanation pointed to an electrical impulse machine irritating a nerve in Strasburg’s forearm, hardly the stuff of catastrophic arm injuries. The city, for the moment, can exhale. Strasburg’s arm remains attached to his body and, if the Monday outing that caused such consternation is any indication, still capable of zinging upper-90s fastballs during his scheduled start Saturday in Pittsburgh.

That didn’t brush aside the fear that lurks behind each pitch, fear that points to the blown-out arms of onetime phenoms like Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, fear that doesn’t forget that awful instant back in August 2010 when Strasburg threw a change-up and something popped inside his right elbow.

That was the last time many folks saw Strasburg shaking his arm (though, if you watch closely, the movement has cropped up from time to time since he returned to the mound in 2011).

But each jiggle of his arm revives the creeping fear, founded or fallacy, that all this could happen again.

Strasburg has put the Tommy John surgery to reconstruct the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow behind him, but, really, the rest of us haven’t. Other than Griffin’s knee, there’s not a more studied, discussed or fretted-about joint in Washington.

There isn’t a middle ground for Strasburg. Each pitch has to be perfect. If not, questions follow about what’s wrong with him because, well, something must be if he surrenders a handful of hits or walks a few batters. His average fastball velocity sits at 95.7 mph, according to FanGraphs, a hair below last season, and his strikeouts per nine innings dipped from 11.1 to 8.7. Strasburg is also just six starts into his second full season in the big leagues, 51 starts in all, which is easy to forget for an athlete who seems to have been around much longer than he has.

Struggle, even a game’s worth, comes as a sort of shock that, yes, the generational talent is all too human.

He’s also a pitcher. And therein lies the problem.

Throwing a baseball isn’t natural. Sure, Strasburg can do so much better than better than 99.9 percent of the general population. But he’s dogged by the same risk as any pitcher that, at some point, the whole unnatural, mesmerizing, whiff-inducing motion will, once again, damage his arm. The microscopic tears from each routine pitch will accumulate and, one day, another pop.

Deep breaths.

Take any precaution out there, from last season’s endlessly discussed innings limit (159 1/3 innings until the Nationals abruptly shut him down) to in-game pitch counts (Strasburg has thrown 110 or more pitches in four of this season’s six starts). Caution is prudent, after studies like the one in the American Journal of Sports Medicine that young pitchers were 36 times more likely to be hurt if they continued pitching after feeling fatigued.

But nothing, no limit or program, other than encasing Strasburg’s right arm in Plexiglass and shipping it to Cooperstown, N.Y., will eliminate the possibility of arm injury in the next five days or five years.

That’s the reality, hard as Strasburg’s fastball. Whatever the mechanics, backgrounds, pedigrees, favorite pitches or nicknames, pitchers get hurt.

So, relax. Stop awaiting an update from sources familiar with the thinking of Strasburg’s ulnar collateral ligament, don’t take each shake of his right arm as a portent of doom and, instead, enjoy the 24-year-old still learning to use his gift. Today he’s healthy. Isn’t that enough?

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