Stephen Strasburg shut down; Nationals off base with explanation

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Stephen Strasburg's season was put down Saturday morning after 159 1/3 innings, 15 wins and a borderline insulting explanation.

Following months of lessons in biomechanics, orthopedics, anatomy and scientific analysis backing their Operation Strasburg Shutdown, the Washington Nationals announced Strasburg would no longer pitch in part because of media hype and mental fatigue.

A few hours later general manager Mike Rizzo stepped in and mostly cleaned that up, but the notion lingers that Strasburg was somehow not emotionally up to running through his 160- or 180-inning finish line. That's grossly unfair to a young man who surely hates that he's thrown his last pitch until spring training, almost certainly more than any fan, teammate or media pop-off hates it.

"There is nothing Stephen Strasburg can't handle," Scott Boras, Strasburg's agent, said Saturday afternoon. "Emotionally, mentally, this guy is built for the long haul. The reality is this is about a medical decision.

"What Stephen is feeling is simply this: 'I can take the ball. I feel fine. But I understand the medical information. I understand the logic. If my name is not on the [lineup] card, it's not on the card. I work for people. I understand even though I don't want it.' "

What is undeniable, according to scouts and other baseball people who have closely followed his starts, is that Strasburg was beginning to struggle physically. He'd not pitched well in two of his final three starts, both against the light-hitting Miami Marlins. (In between, he threw six shutout innings against the St. Louis Cardinals.) His mechanics had subtly changed, so that he appeared to be overthrowing in order to maintain his signature velocity. At times, he was falling toward first base at the end of his delivery. Scouts saw it. The Nationals saw it.

"We followed the protocol," Rizzo told reporters Saturday. "We had parameters in mind. After [Friday's] start, we just figured that mentally and physically Stephen looked like he was fatigued."

That actually sounded a lot better than manager Davey Johnson's explanation, in which he laid the decision on "the media hype to this thing."

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"I feel sorry for him," Johnson said. "As it would be [tough] for anybody to get mentally committed in a ballgame."

He also said he did not see the same "crispness" in Strasburg's pitches, and should have left it at that.

Because, as it turned out, Strasburg's season went about as the medical data suggested it would. His elbow was fixed. His fastball came back. He was brilliant again. And then it was time to prepare for 200 or so innings in 2013.

That, too, is part of what has become known around Strasburg as "The Protocol." Certainly the Nationals could have feathered Strasburg into the first couple months of the season, as the Atlanta Braves did with Kris Medlen, leaving him with innings to pitch to the end of September and into October. But, according to Boras, part of the big-picture recovery includes the coming down time and conditioning to prepare for next season.

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"Does Stephen want to pitch? Yes," Boras said. "Remember though, he's following the advice of the doctor who saved his career. The whole idea of what's going on with Stephen is, he's had a great year. He's followed the protocol, will continue to follow the protocol, and go forward."

That's how Stephen Strasburg's season ended Saturday morning, in the pages of a doctor's manual on recovery from Tommy John surgery. And on the percentage play that a 24-year-old ballplayer will have a longer, more productive career because of it.

Maybe he will and maybe he won't. But you know what didn't end his season? You know what won't shorten his career?

Strasburg's mental capacity for it all. Or reporters asking questions about it.

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