Nationals, Strasburg reach the limit

Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson is one of those authoritative baseball voices with the stature to drop a bombshell even when he barely speaks above a whisper. Johnson dropped a doozy on the team's beat writers Saturday morning when he announced that Stephen Strasburg's final 2012 appearance -- widely anticipated for Wednesday night at Citi Field in New York -- actually took place Friday before 28,533 oblivious fans at Nationals Park.

Strasburg's final inventory: a 15-6 record and a 3.16 ERA, 197 strikeouts in 159 1/3 innings, and a nagging sense that what's best for a player's career in the long run can leave everyone feeling hollow and unfulfilled in the short term. Strasburg proved this season that he has the competitiveness, makeup, command and stuff to be an ace for 15 years. But if you watched his performance in Friday's 9-7 loss to the Miami Marlins and failed to detect the strain on his face or the fatigue in his body language, you were too busy obsessing over his radar gun readings.

The Nationals' decision to pull the plug five days early reflects the emotional element in the decision-making process. Strasburg has the ability to blow away big league hitters at the letters, throw his changeup at 91 mph and bend his curve with the best of them. But Washington's pitching cyborg is also widely regarded as a good kid and an excellent teammate, and all the speculation and uncertainty from shutdown day appeared to overwhelm him in the end.

There's a simplistic, macho sentiment going around that Strasburg could somehow barge into the manager's office, topple some furniture and demand to finish what he started. That makes sense if you believe that today's pitchers are soft and that a staff ace should be throwing 28 complete games and contributing 314 innings, the way Bob Gibson did in 1969.

But it's obviously not the way the world works now.

In addition to Strasburg's getting shut down Friday, the New York Mets are closely monitoring the workload of pitcher Matt Harvey, and the Chicago Cubs just announced that Jeff Samardzija's start against Pittsburgh on Saturday will bring his season to an end. You might have heard about those news developments -- and cared -- if the Mets and Cubs weren't 20 and 30½ games out of first place, respectively.

Admission: In anticipation of writing a preview of Strasburg's final start when it was scheduled for Wednesday, I've spent the past few days talking to baseball people who are either directly involved in the saga or watching it unfold from afar. And I asked them, "Is there any way the Nationals could have handled things differently to balance the player's health with the team's immediate goals yet defuse the inevitable media circus along the way?"

• I talked to Washington general manager Mike Rizzo and asked him, in hindsight, whether the Nationals could have turned down the heat on this story before it became a baseball media obsession. By setting the Strasburg parameters so early in the season and broadcasting their intentions, did they feed into the frenzy and leave a guillotine hanging over Strasburg's head?

"I've thought about what I could have done differently and how I could have handled it differently," Rizzo said. "I was always taught, 'Be frank and forthright, and tell the truth and everything will be OK.' We told the truth going as far back as last winter. There was never any deception over what we were going to do and when we were going to do it. I felt that was the right way."

• I talked to several front-office executives and asked whether the Nationals could have finessed this in such a way to space out Strasburg's innings with a phantom disabled list visit here or a skipped start there.

The White Sox, quietly, have spaced out the workload for Chris Sale, whose innings are a concern even though he doesn't have a reconstructed elbow. In contrast, Johnson and the Nationals have been adamant that the best thing for Strasburg is a consistent routine, and they weren't going to finagle with their original plans. It's puzzling to some people in the baseball world who consistently deal with rehabbing pitchers on their own.

"They expected to win this year, right?" said an American League executive. "Why did they sign Edwin Jackson to a one-year deal and make the big trade for Gio Gonzalez? I fully respect having discipline and a plan, but the whole thing seemed kind of stubborn to me. At some point in May or June, don't you say, 'If we keep playing like this, it'll be crazy to shut this guy down? Let's plan for this.' If you can trim five innings a month, he can pitch through the end of the year. Trim eight innings a month, and that's the playoffs. There are a lot of creative ways to achieve the same outcome."

• I talked to Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras, who has conducted his own meticulous research on the topic and who, to this day, laments the demise of pitchers Steve Avery and Alex Fernandez -- clients from a previous generation who flamed out earlier than expected after logging big early workloads. Boras is a big advocate of what he calls "prehabilitation" -- a way to plan ahead to safeguard young pitchers from overuse.

"The culture of the game has changed because medical science has changed the amount of information that general managers and managers and owners have available," Boras said. "We have medical information that says the probabilities for success are vastly greater by following a protocol rather than not following it. Are we going to revert back to the sight-and-sound test of the '70s, '80s and '90s?

"When you're bringing pitchers along at 21, 22 or 23 years old, just look at the studies. There are only a few young men who can pitch at this level and be so exciting for the game. We want to preserve our stars."

The Nationals have clearly put a lot of thought into the process and been consistent in following the "protocol" for pitchers recovering from surgeries. They capped Jordan Zimmermann at 161 1/3 innings last year in his return from Tommy John surgery and are reaping the benefits this season. They set a 116-inning limit on Nathan Karns, their minor league pitcher of the year, and are currently nurturing prospect Sammy Solis and first-round draft pick Lucas Giolito through the Tommy John surgery recovery process. So they know the drill.

Beyond the debate over innings and historical precedents, the gray areas are harder to assess. There were some battle lines drawn over Strasburg, with Drs. James Andrews and Lewis Yocum expressing the medical viewpoint on one side and John Kruk, Mitch Williams, Leo Mazzone and others criticizing the Nationals from the TV set or the radio booth from the other. But it was telling when Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels -- active pitchers who aren't exactly from the Chris Perez School of Casually Speaking Their Mind -- conceded that it would be awfully difficult for them to step away in the middle of a pennant race.

The Nationals think they've built a team with the youth, depth, farm system and financial resources to contend over the long haul. Just ask the great Cleveland Indians or Atlanta Braves teams of the 1990s whether that guarantees them a bunch of parades.

If you think Strasburg's absence from the pitcher's mound means he's no longer a story, think again. It'll be an issue when Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Jackson and Ross Detwiler are pitching in the first round of the playoffs and Strasburg is doing his sprints and elbow exercises and riding a stationary bike. If the Nationals overcome this and go deep into October, you'll hear the Washington players talk about how "everyone elevated their games." And if they bow out early, Nationals management is sure to be second-guessed like crazy.

If you think this is a one-time, novel occurrence, you're wrong. Next year, the Baltimore Orioles might be going through the same thing with Dylan Bundy. Or maybe the Pirates will encounter it with Gerrit Cole. Pick a prospect and a contender, and pitch counts and passion are destined to bump heads eventually.

Until that day arrives and somebody else is on the hot seat, Rizzo is convinced the Nationals made the right call -- even if the rest of the baseball world waits in judgment.

"The people covering this story know about 10 percent of what we know," Rizzo said. "We know the history, the makeup and the delivery of the player. I've seen every one of his professional starts and a bunch of his starts as an amateur. We know our protocols and our philosophies.

"In the end, the way people will judge this thing is how he performs, And that's OK with me. People are going to say what they want about this thing. I'm going to sleep like a baby knowing I'm doing the right thing by Stephen, our franchise and our ballclub."

Stephen Strasburg's long-term future might be safer and more secure because the Nationals went to such great lengths to protect his golden right arm. But you can only wonder whether he'll sleep as well as his general manager does tonight.