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The Stephen Strasburg dilemma

5/7/2012

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Nationals will have to play on without Jayson Werth, but they are a good team, with the best ERA in the majors and a dynamic talent in Bryce Harper and an All-Star third baseman in Ryan Zimmerman, who should be back in their lineup Tuesday. The Nationals took two of three games from the Phillies over the weekend, and they are tied for the best record in the National League.

But because of their early-season success, the Nationals are barreling toward a storm of debate that promises to become the biggest topic of conversation in the sport in the late summer. The collision will center on these two forces going in opposite directions, headlong.

The Nationals are trying to win, to establish their franchise.

And the Nationals are also fully intent on protecting and preserving Stephen Strasburg, and limiting him to something in the neighborhood of 160 innings.

To review: Over the last decade, there has been a theoretical thought shift in most corners of Major League Baseball, and young pitchers are limited in how many innings they've thrown. Progressive organizations like the Rays monitor the workload of youngsters, and will shut them down rather than push them.

Strasburg was the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft, pitched professionally for the first time in 2010, and had thrown a total of 123.1 innings in the minors and majors before blowing out his elbow. He returned to the mound late in 2011, and threw 44.1 innings in the minors and majors. So at the outset of this season, the Nationals placed him on the same path that Jordan Zimmermann took back to the big leagues after he had elbow reconstruction surgery. Last year, Zimmermann hit the neighborhood of 160 innings and the Nationals ended his season; he threw his last pitch on Aug. 28.

Because Strasburg has been so good early this season, he's moving swiftly toward that horizon. Strasburg is arguably among the best starters in baseball right now, but he's thrown 38 innings, or almost a quarter of his quota. He's been spectacular, ranking 10th in the majors in ERA, at 1.66; he's sixth in WHIP, at 0.84; he's held opposing hitters to a .489 OPS, which is crazy good. Again, he's one of the best pitchers in the majors already.

But the Nationals fully intend to hold him close to his innings limit, and they're not going to try to do so with magic tricks. Davey Johnson explained before Sunday's game that shutting Strasburg down for a week or two weeks is really an artificial way of dealing with the innings limit; it doesn't really serve the purpose of protecting Strasburg.

No, there will be a day that general manager Mike Rizzo is going to step in, with the backing of the club's ownership, and say: Enough. The Nationals might be a game ahead or a game behind, they might have other pitching injuries, they might be starving for victories at the time, but it won't matter. Rizzo is going to impose a big-picture view, because he wants to give Strasburg the best chance to pitch for many years.

It's going to be important for Rizzo and Johnson to stand at the forefront of this decision, because it's going to draw a lot of scrutiny, maybe as much as any choice as we've seen in sports in the last decade. It's possible that Strasburg will be a serious contender for the Cy Young Award, and the Nationals will be a serious contender to be the best team in the NL, rolling along, at the time he hits his innings ceiling. Casual fans won't understand the rationale at all, and heck, even the most educated fans won't get it.

Strasburg may well disagree, as will some of his teammates. Rizzo and Johnson will need to take the bullets for the pitcher, to make it clear that this is their decision, and not his. And they will do that. They planned for this, keeping their overstock of starting pitching, and spending to sign Edwin Jackson, as well, as they prepare for the day when Strasburg becomes the most talented spectator in sports.

Elsewhere

• The Nationals will have to win without Werth, who broke his left wrist again and will miss most or all of the rest of the season, depending on how his recovery goes. It was a clean break.

The Nationals are getting back Ryan Zimmerman just in time this week.

• The Phillies and Nationals went old school on Sunday night, and everybody did it the right way. Cole Hamels drilled Bryce Harper with the first pitch on Sunday, and Harper just jogged to first base -- and extracted his revenge by stealing home plate easily, becoming the first 19-year-old to do that in almost 50 years. When Hamels came up in the third inning, Jordan Zimmermann drilled him in the legs, clear retaliation, and Hamels took it without complaint or even a glance, jogging to first base.

But the whole thing took an unusual turn after the game, when Hamels didn't go down the usual path of deniability -- call it the Roger Way, after Roger Clemens, who never admitted hitting anybody on purpose -- and instead flat-out acknowledged drilling Harper.

From Jim Salisbury's story:

    "It's just, 'Welcome to the big leagues,'" Hamels said in the clubhouse after eight dominating innings. "I was trying to hit him. I mean, I'm not going to deny it."(

More:

    "You know what, it's something I grew up watching, because that's kind of what happened, and I'm trying to continue the old baseball [tradition]," Hamels said. "Because I think some people kind of get away from it. I remember when I was a rookie, the strike zone [for Hamels] was really, really small, and you didn't say anything, because that's the way baseball is. But unfortunately, the league sometimes protects certain players and makes it not that old-school, prestigious way of baseball."

Hamels, by the way, is pitching as well as he ever has in his career, keeping hitters off balance, mixing his changeup and his fastball and his curveball.

Elias: The 19-year-old Harper stole home Sunday against the Phillies. The last teenager to steal home was 19-year-old Ed Kirkpatrick of the Angels on May 5, 1964 (almost 48 years to the day) at the Kansas City Athletics.

Harper's steal of home in the first inning is the 16th steal of home over the last two seasons, but only the third steal of home on a pickoff attempt. The leaguewide success rate stealing home is 28.6 percent over the last two seasons, but only 18.9 percent on pickoff attempts overall.

• Werth's injury capped a horrific week that started with Mat Gamel and Evan Longoria suffering significant injuries, and continued with injuries to Mariano Rivera and Cory Luebke and Alex Gonzalez. I can't remember a week quite so bad as this week was for that.

The Brewers managed to get through a game without somebody getting hurt.

And the hits just keep on coming: Desmond Jennings has a sore knee. The Mets' Ruben Tejada is hurt. Scott Downs got hurt, and was on crutches after the game.

• The Orioles are so good that they're winning with position players on the mound; the last time Chris Davis pitched, writes Eduardo Encina, was six years ago.

The Red Sox, on the other hand, had their guts ripped out, and they continue to struggle at home. Clay Buchholz had another bad day. Adrian Gonzalez was terrible, and wouldn't talk about it.

• Albert Pujols' long homerless streak ended Sunday, as Marcia Smith writes.

Pujols' streak of 110 homerless at-bats was the longest to begin a season for a player with 400 or more career home runs. He set that "record" with a fourth-inning strikeout Sunday, breaking the mark of Eddie Murray, who had 479 career homers in the bank when he began the 1996 season with 109 at-bats for the Indians before going deep for the first time.

By the numbers, from ESPN Stats & Information, on Pujols:

110: At-bats before hitting a home run this season (longest homerless drought for player with 400 or more career HRs).

.114: Batting average against off-speed pitches this season, entering Sunday.

273: Players to hit a home run in MLB this season prior to Pujols hitting his first. Eight Angels hit home runs this year prior to Pujols' first home run.

789: Home runs hit in MLB this season prior to Pujols hitting his first.

Dings and dents

Edwin Encarnacion took a ball off the face.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. The Astros called up a pitcher to step into their rotation.

2. It's unclear what the Giants are going to do with Aubrey Huff, as mentioned within this notebook.

3. Andy Pettitte thinks he's ready for the big leagues.

4. Dusty Baker says Jay Bruce won't be hitting cleanup, because he doesn't want his lefties hitting back-to-back. You wonder if it would work to hit Joey Votto in the No. 2 spot and Bruce No. 4.

5. The Cubs took a guy off their roster.

6. The White Sox continue to do a pitching shuffle.

Sunday's games

1. The Jays lost, and their manager tipped his cap to an opponent, as Richard Griffin writes.

2. Ozzie Guillen was right: Once the Marlins got out of Miami, <a href="http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/05/07/2787149/miami-marlins-top-san-diego-padres.html Giancarlo Stanton made a pivotal catch. The Marlins won their sixth in a row, behind Ricky Nolasco, as Clark Spencer writes.

3. Matt Moore let things get out of control, as Joe Smith writes.

4. The Braves finished off a statement sweep of the Rockies.

5. The Diamondbacks suffered a frustrating loss.

6. Terrible pitching was a problem for the Rockies over the weekend.

7. Oakland dug itself out of an early deficit.

8. The Giants finished their homestand on a good note, winning in extra innings, writes Carl Steward.

9. Yu Darvish suffered his first loss, as Jeff Wilson writes.

10. Tyler Greene had a really good day, as Rick Hummel writes. Adam Wainwright had his best outing.

11. Ubaldo Jimenez had his best game of the season, as Dennis Manoloff writes. Ubaldo may have turned a corner, as Bud Shaw writes.

12. Luke Hochevar is on the wrong side of history, after his most recent loss. From ESPN Stats & Information: After allowing seven earned runs in 2 1/3 innings Sunday against the Yankees, Hochevar is now an owner of a 5.46 career ERA. Since 1901, only five pitchers with 100 starts have had worse career ERAs: Kevin Jarvis (6.03) from 1994-2006; Claude Willoughby (5.84) from 1925-1931; Rob Bell (5.71) from 2000-2007; Bryan Rekar (5.62) from 1995-2002; and Kyle Davies (5.59) from 2005-2011.

13. Phil Hughes had his best outing, as David Waldstein writes.

14. R.A. Dickey was tough on himself, after pitching well.

15. Mat Latos was The Man for the Reds.

16. Jose Valverde had a day of redemption. Jim Leyland juggled his lineup.

17. The Cubs won with a walk.

18. The Twins were shut down again, after meeting to talk about relaxing. The Twins are vowing to stick together, despite their 7-20 start, as John Shipley writes.

19. The Padres' game turned on a walk.

20. For the third time this year, Javy Guerra blew a save chance.

Other stuff

• The Clemens case may or may not turn on the credibility of Brian McNamee, as Jim Baumbach writes.

• Some folks in Baltimore didn't get to see the Orioles' incredible win, because of a broadcast decision.

• The Mariners have some great pitching talent in Class Double-A, as Larry Stone writes.

• The morning after, Chipper Jones was still upset about Jamie Moyer, as David O'Brien writes.

• The Brewers' owner remains hopeful.

Sean Rodriguez made one of the best defensive plays of the year.

• Kirk Gibson wants his offense to improve.

Greg Dobbs is climbing the all-time list of pinch-hitters, as Juan Rodriguez writes.

• Ron Washington gave a piece of his mind to Derek Holland Saturday.

Irving Falu had quite a debut.

• The Pirates aren't hitting many home runs.

Charlie Morton is going to work on his sinker, as Chris Harlan writes.

Carlos Ruiz is the most undervalued player.

• Vanderbilt finished off our archrival.

And today will be better than yesterday.