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Strasburg could hit innings limit in early September

WASHINGTON -- Stephen Strasburg chuckled the moment the subject was broached. His response sounded as if it had been memorized off a note card.

"I have no clue how many innings I'm going to throw this year," the Washington Nationals righthander said. "I've answered that question multiple times, and nobody's said anything to me. I feel great right now."

Strasburg, who starts Sunday at Miami and likely will not pitch against the Mets in a series that begins Tuesday, keeps hearing the question because he's in the middle of a real head-scratcher.

If the Nationals still look like World Series contenders in September, will they really follow through with the plan to shut down their ace a month early?

That's been the plan all along. It's the accepted medical norm for a pitcher coming back from Tommy John surgery. The plug will be pulled somewhere around 160 innings, just as it was last year for TJ-comeback teammate Jordan Zimmermann, whose season came to an abrupt halt when he hit 1611/3 innings Aug. 28.

But this year's Nationals hit the break at 15 games over .500, with a four-game lead in the NL East -- and Strasburg has thrown 100 innings, including a scoreless frame in Tuesday night's All-Star Game.

Remember, no major-league baseball team in Washington has made the postseason since 1933.

The Strasburg plan seemed OK back in spring training when optimistic scenarios had the club perhaps in the mix for the brand- new second wild-card berth, but now it might have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give the city a championship.

"Last year, we almost got to .500, and I felt for sure the progression here was we could come close to winning 90 games if everything fell into place and we started doing the things I knew we were capable of doing," manager Davey Johnson said. "We got us more arms during the offseason, and they really helped me with the bench. There are more weapons here now to where we have progressed more rapidly."

Regardless, the Nationals aren't budging on the Strasburg Plan -- at least not so far. General manager Mike Rizzo figures this young roster is poised to be a contender for years to come, so there's no use risking a gifted talent such as Strasburg by pushing him too hard with a freshly reconstructed elbow.

Johnson, who usually doesn't analyze the schedule far in advance, said he's already looked at the September slate to figure out how to approach it without his best pitcher.

"I was curious as to who we were playing and what our schedule was that last month -- absent Strasburg," Johnson said. "What type of pitcher might fit in best for going against the clubs that we're going to play that month."

Strasburg threw 99 innings in 17 starts before the break, going 9-4 with a 2.82 ERA. At this pace, he probably would hit his innings limit around the first week of September.

It's not, however, as if the Nationals suddenly would fall off the Earth without him. They've had the top rotation in the majors for much of the season with fellow All-Star Gio Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler all sporting ERAs under 4.00.

"We'll see how good we are," Johnson said. "I'm much more comfortable and much more relaxed, believe it or not, coming into the second half."

Even if he doesn't have Strasburg all the way to the end.

New York Sports