Debate Rages Over Strasburg Shutdown

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SAN FRANCISCO - So in a while, a couple of weeks probably, Stephen Strasburg won't be allowed to pitch. But that's the future. For the present, he's still active, and today he's going for the Nationals against the Giants.

That's why Tuesday night's win by the Giants over Washington was important. "Huge,'' said Bruce Bochy, San Francisco's manager. The Nats were 4-0 against the Giants. And Monday night, they crushed San Francisco, 14-2.

"You don't want to get swept at home,'' said Bochy. The way they were swept a month ago in Washington. It won't happen now. Even if Strasburg pitches as expected. Because for the Giants, Madison Bumgarner pitched as hoped.

Washington has the best record in the majors. Hard to get your head around that fact, even if it's real. There's been a lifetime of failure for Washington baseball, the Senators, then briefly the Nationals, who certainly have changed the situation.

The slogan, "Washington, first in war, first in peace, last in the American League,'' was infamous.

The book, "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant,'' which was turned into the great musical, "Damn Yankees,'' of an eternally depressed Washington fan who sells his soul to the devil so his team can win at last, was historic.

But now Washington is a success, and the problem is how to handle that success, how to handle Strasburg, with his 166 strikeouts and 13-5 record.

The Nats' general manager Mike Rizzo announced Strasburg, who has 133 innings before tonight, will pitch somewhere between 140 and 160 and then stop for the season.

No matter how much he might be missed in the playoffs or - just making the suggestion seems blasphemous - the World Series.

Strasburg had Tommy John surgery his rookie year, 2010, and then was out most of 2011. Rizzo told Washington Post columnist Tom Boswell pitchers who break down after elbow surgery usually do it the second year after their return, which would be 2013 for Strasburg, because of the stress the first year.

Rizzo is determined to protect the career of a player picked first overall in the 2009 draft, already is considered the franchise, and not think about immediate results, even in the postseason.

The debate - Nats players don't want to lose Strasburg in September - doesn't matter for this moment. Strasburg still is active, and the Giants still must confront him.

"We know how good he can be,'' said Bochy, who then pointed out, "This kid we faced (Tuesday) night is awfully good too.'' That would be Jordan Zimmerman, who had a 9-6 record and 2.35 earned run average.

Zimmerman wasn't bad Tuesday, allowing only two runs in 5 2/3 innings. It's just that Bumgarner, with a complete game, was better.

The Nationals hit three home runs off Bumgarner in July, but they had none Tuesday night, not that this is a surprise at AT&T Park, where the outfield fences are halfway to the Sierra Nevada and the fog chills the air, as it did this game.

"It's remarkable how he can bounce back,'' Bochy said of Bumgarner, who now has a 13-5 record. "He was in command.''

In a way, so is Rizzo, the Nationals' GM. It's his decision to end Strasburg's season early, and will take the blame if Washington flops in the playoffs too early.

"I'm probably one of the reasons,'' said Steve McCatty. Not because he is the Nats' pitching coach, because some 30 years ago he was a member of the Oakland Athletics' staff worked to frazzle by manager Billy Martin. The A's in 1981 didn't have much in the bullpen, so Martin stayed with the starters until figuratively their arms fell off. And literally they developed problems.

"I can't say what's the right way or wrong way (for Strasburg),'' explained McCatty, who doesn't get paid to make decisions, just to make his pitchers winners, which they are.

The Washington players willing to offer commentary have said they want Strasburg, and why not?

"You take the best pitcher off any team that has a chance to make it to the postseason and it's devastating," Washington's Mark DeRosa told USA Today. DeRosa was with the Giants the past two years.

"At the same time, we knew it going in. You kind of hoped the better we played the more the decision changed to the opposite."

That's a diplomatic phrasing of, "Please don't do this to us.'' But it's going to be done, and maybe it should be done. As McCatty verifies, pitchers are fragile. Eventually they go on the disabled list. Consider Mariano Rivera, who seemed indestructible.

Strasburg is 24 and already had an operation all pitchers dread. Rizzo wants to make certain there's nothing else. Strasburg's comeback year soon will be over.

Not yet, however. He'll be out there against the Giants, who are grateful they had Madison Bumgarner out there against the Nationals.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's also honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America. His columns appear in RealClearSports on Wednesdays and Fridays.

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