Strasburg lives in the now, for now
The Nationals have the majors' best record. They also have the majors' biggest brewing controversy, the Stephen Strasburg Shutdown debate, in which seemingly everyone has weighed in on general manager Mike Rizzo's plan to end his 23-year-old pitching phenom's season between 160-170 innings.
That mark is approaching, just as a sure playoff spot is approaching for the Nats, who had a chance to go 30 games over .500 Saturday night against the Mets. But the Nationals say they have no intention of letting Strasburg pitch in the playoffs.
"We're going to run him out there until his innings are gone and then stop him from pitching," Rizzo said during spring training.
Players and managers from other teams have tossed in their opinions. Players on the Nationals have voiced their thoughts, even if different from Rizzo's. The GM spoke to Strasburg's father, Jim, in person in Arizona last week. And Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras, piped up two days ago, telling The Washington Post that Boras "and Rizzo put this team together" and a few other head-scratching comments from someone outside the Nationals organization.
None of the discourse has changed anything: Rizzo is steadfast, Strasburg wants to keep pitching and the Nationals don't lose very much.
"That story has been beaten ad nauseam," Rizzo said. "And nothing has changed."
When Strasburg, the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft, needed to undergo Tommy John surgery just under two years ago, the Nationals wanted to proceed the right way. Dr. Lewis Yocum performed the surgery and prescribed the protocol for Strasburg's return; he threw just 24 innings in 2011 and Rizzo, in consultation with Yocum and the team's medical staff, set the upper limit of innings for Strasburg in 2012 before the current season even began.
And then the Nats' season took off, with Strasburg among the many reasons. He is 14-5 with a 2.91 ERA in 139 1/3 innings pitched. His 173 strikeouts trail only R.A. Dickey in the National League. He is also pitching without pain, which further complicates things.
"The thing is, I feel good right now and I'm pitching. And I'm going to keep pitching. That's the bottom line," Strasburg said. "There's no point in talking about something that might happen, might not happen -- we've still got a few more weeks to go before a decision has to be made."
Strasburg has yet to fully accept what Rizzo has in store. Nationals manager Davey Johnson spoke Saturday as if he knows what's going to happen.
"We've faced some adversity this season, but that just means it's been an opportunity for someone else," Johnson said. "When Stras goes down, somebody will fill that spot and step up. That's the way it goes."
Even with a young team that's experiencing success for the first time, the Nationals have not been bothered by all the talk and the impending shutdown. Gio Gonzalez (15-6, 3.29) and Jordan Zimmerman (9-7, 2.38) have been effective starters as well and 19-year-old Bryce Harper has invigorated the everyday lineup.
"Our starting rotation is good enough to take us to a championship," outfielder Michael Morse said. "Stephen pitches every fourth or fifth day. We've got other pitchers that are good too. We just have our blinders on, we keep going and we keep winning."
Boras, who has several other clients on the Nationals including Jayson Werth and starter Edwin Jackson, told The Washington Post that "Rizzo and I put this team together. I got eight or nine guys on the team."
Boras went further. "I went to the owner [Ted Lerner] and said, 'You better start Edwin Jackson, you better do this because you are going to need these innings because we have this plan for Stephen Strasburg,'" Boras said. "And you know what? Ted did it."
The power agent also implied that if Rizzo were to change his mind and keep Strasburg going through the postseason, there were consequences.
"The fact of the matter is, if you are forcing your player to pitch and disregarding medical doctors, are you going to be able to live with that legally and ethically?"
Strasburg has experienced frustration as well, all of it, he says, from outside the team. Rizzo told a reporter about a good talk with Jim Strasburg, which in turn prompted former reliever (and former Nationals color analyst) Rob Dibble to tell a local radio station, "Do you need your dad to talk to the GM? That's sad to me."
"It's a shame, just because one reporter writes something, people think it's fact," Strasburg said. "It's a shame they're taking my family into this when they're my support system and they're in it with me. My dad, for one, he's not just in this rooting for me, he loves every one of these guys in here. For people to paint him as the dad that's just worried about his son, it's just not the case. It's a terrible thing to see."
The debate continues. Strasburg continues to pitch, with his next turn against the Braves next week in a crucial three-game series between the NL East's top teams. And the Nationals continue to play well, moving toward the finish line of their first breakout season with a question still hanging in the air.
"If we weren't winning, a lot of people would be out there writing, 'Oh, we're thinking too much about the playoffs and stuff,' " Strasburg said. "But we've got a great group of older guys who have been here before and know that there's still a lot of baseball to be played. We're winning a lot of games right now and that's what we've got to keep focusing on. We've got to keep living in the now."