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Nationals have luxury of being cautious with Stephen Strasburg

BALTIMORE -- When you're 8.5 games up in late August, you've got plenty of breathing room. Good thing too, because Washington Nationals fans almost stopped breathing today when they heard that Stephen Strasburg was headed to the DL.

With a sore elbow.

When it comes to pitchers, "elbow" might as well be a four-letter word instead of five. When it comes to pitchers who've had Tommy John surgery and recently signed a $175 million extension (like Strasburg), the E-word is more than profane. It's downright terrifying, which is why Washington is playing it safe.

According to everyone who had anything to say about Strasburg's elbow today -- from manager Dusty Baker to GM Mike Rizzo to the owner of the elbow himself -- putting the 28-year-old righty on the disabled list was purely prophylactic. Then again, these kinds of moves are always precautionary. Until they're not. But in the absence of any evidence to the contrary (there hasn't been an MRI yet), we have no choice but to consume the Kool-Aid.

"Being a Tommy John guy and getting through the grind of the season, there's just a little more maintenance that has to go with it," Strasburg said. "I'm kind of still learning those things."

Apparently, part of the learning process involves knowing when it's time to tag out. On Saturday, three days after getting shelled for nine hits and nine runs over 1⅔ innings in Colorado -- his third straight rocky outing -- Strasburg came to Baker and told him that his elbow was feeling a little stiff. That ever since the All-Star break, he'd had more and more trouble getting his range of motion back in between starts. But hey, he could still take the ball every fifth day. Baker wasn't having it.

"I had to convince him that the risk isn't worth the gain right now," said the Nats skipper. "We made a decision for him because he wanted to pitch. We had to do what we thought was right for him and us. He fought it, but he didn't really have much choice. I explained to him that it's not hero time yet."

In fact, it's the opposite of hero time. Even after losing 4-3 to the Orioles on Monday in the opener of the Beltway Battle series -- a matchup that was supposed to pit Strasburg against fellow former first-rounder and Tommy John survivor Dylan Bundy -- the Nationals still hold an inflamed eight-game cushion over the Miami Marlins, the second largest lead in the majors. While the odds of Washington coughing that up are roughly equivalent to the odds of Ryan Lochte becoming the new spokesperson for the Brazilian Board of Tourism, stranger things have happened -- but not many. In fact, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information, since the beginning of the wild-card era in 1994, no team has ever blown a division lead that big after playing 120-plus games.

In other words, the Nats are sitting pretty right now. But what if they were sitting ugly? What if it was crunch time and, instead of eight games, their lead was more like one or two?

"If we were later in the season and we had to have him pitch," Rizzo said of Strasburg prior to Monday's game, "he could pitch for us and would pitch for us."

If Rizzo sounds a little bit like the godfather -- not unlike he did when the Nats and Strasburg "agreed" that it would be best if Strasburg didn't pitch in the All-Star Game -- you can hardly blame him. After all, when you shell out nearly $200 mil to secure an athlete's services, you've pretty much earned the right to tell the recipient of said nearly $200 mil when he can and cannot pitch.

The Nationals can only hope that this precautionary pause works out as well as the previous one. A year ago, at the end of August 2015, Strasburg left an outing early after getting hit hard against Miami. After having his next start skipped, he came back and was downright dominant over the final three weeks of the season, posting a 57:5 strikeout-to-walk ratio and giving up just five earned runs over his final five starts. Of course, it ended up not mattering because Washington finished second in the NL East and missed the playoffs. The thinking is that this time around, with the Nats firmly in control of the division, an ounce of prevention now will be worth 73 metric tons of cure come October (give or take).

"The position that we're in at this time in the season, better off getting him right now," Rizzo said. "Hopefully he comes back in 15 days stronger than ever and can recharge and be really strong at the end."