- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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WASHINGTON -- Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has made it clear that the team will mothball Stephen Strasburg in September to safeguard the pitcher's long-term future, and he's not particularly interested in dissenting opinions. But that doesn't prevent the media from trolling for divergent viewpoints. In recent weeks, every Tom, Dick and Cole Hamels has weighed in with a new slant on the subject.
Has Strasburg's workload been dissected to the point of exhaustion and beyond? Probably. But if the debate over Operation Shutdown Stephen means less time spent discussing the strained dynamic in the Boston Red Sox clubhouse, can it really be so bad?
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez became the latest to get the grilling late Tuesday afternoon. The poor guy was minding his business in the dugout, talking about Chipper Jones' impressive swan song and the merits of the Braves' new six-man rotation, when a reporter asked what he thinks of the Nationals' plan to have Strasburg call it quits before the postseason in October.
Gonzalez squirmed like a guy caught in the middle of the Medicare debate. In the end, he opted for diplomacy and tacitly endorsed the Nationals' plan to exercise caution with Strasburg.
"You see Rizzo's point,'' Gonzalez said. "It's not like you can go back to Field 2 in spring training and find five guys like that running around back there. They're special. He'll be a top-of-the-rotation type of guy for a lot of years."
Strasburg, 15-5 with a 2.85 ERA and a National League-leading 183 strikeouts, has shown all season that he has the capacity to change speeds, throw strikes and keep the ball below the knees while consistently rising to the occasion. Now he's showing hitters that he's even more slippery when wet.
Strasburg came out dealing against Atlanta, then had to scurry for cover when the sky darkened and the rain began falling in waves in the third inning. The delay lasted 51 minutes, and the 33,888 fans in attendance, the entire press box and the Racing Presidents all had to wonder: Would Strasburg return to the mound, or settle in with an ice pack on his shoulder and watch "Dancing With the Stars"?
Thanks to a little planning and lots of Diamond Dry, Strasburg had a lot more left to give. After playing catch indoors and staying loose by long-tossing in the outfield, Strasburg returned to the mound with his Grade-A stuff. He struck out 10 hitters in six innings to outpitch Paul Maholm, and the Nationals beat the Braves 4-1 at Nationals Park.
This series was billed as a big NL East smackdown, but it has become readily apparent that the Nationals will have to incur a 2011 Braves-caliber meltdown to let things slip away from them down the stretch. Washington has gone 24-7 since July 21 to open up a seven-game lead over the Braves, who have to be feeling a little separation anxiety. Atlanta suffered a gut-wrenching, 13-inning loss in the series opener, then fell victim to Strasburg and the Washington bullpen Tuesday.
Barring a huge comeback, the Braves will have to focus on winning a wild-card spot -- which means a one-game playoff to advance to the Division Series under MLB's new postseason setup.
"There's 10 times more pressure to win your division now, and (the players) know it," said Washington manager Davey Johnson. "If you get the wild card, it really puts you behind the eight ball, because you probably have to use your best pitcher in that one-game playoff.
"That's why this series is more weighted. There's more energy level, more concentration -- there's more on the table. Atlanta was very dejected after yesterday. After today they're very dejected. They've got a pretty good lead on the wild card. But they don't want the wild card. When you're the second club in your division and you've got a one-game playoff, it's not a comfortable feeling. Same way with San Francisco and (the Dodgers). There's heat on them."
In fairness, the media obsession with Strasburg and rookie outfielder Bryce Harper has obscured a lot of nice storylines in Washington. The Nationals' rotation leads the majors with a 3.23 ERA, and closer Tyler Clippard recorded his 28th save against the Braves. Ian Desmond leads big-league shortstops with 19 homers, and Adam LaRoche ranks first among NL first basemen with 23 homers and 78 RBIs. The Nationals have also gotten a nice contribution from Jayson Werth, who's hitting .381 (24-for-63) since his return from the disabled list earlier this month.
The fascination with Strasburg is a product of talent, circumstance and drama. He is a supremely gifted young pitcher who continues to dominate opposing lineups while the sand runs out of the hourglass. Oddly enough, everybody seems obsessed with the innings countdown but him.
"It's funny," Strasburg said after the game. "Nobody talks to me personally about it. So I can either scour the Internet or watch all this stuff being said on TV, or I can just keep pitching and watch the Golf Channel, I guess."
When Strasburg is on his game, it's easy to see what the fuss is about. Of his 10 strikeouts against the Braves, four came on the fastball, four came on the changeup and two came on the curve. In the third inning, Strasburg threw two fastballs and a curve to Martin Prado. He followed with another knee-buckling curve, and Prado jumped back in the batter's box just as the ball bit and crossed home plate for strike three.
"Every time I see Martin Prado, I tell him he's my favorite player in the big leagues," Desmond said. "The guy is unbelievable. But what can you do there? Strasburg throws two fastballs 98 miles an hour, and if he hits you with another one, you're looking at DL time. Then he throws the curveball. Prado just tried to protect himself, and unfortunately for him, it was a strike."
Although Johnson occasionally does mental math to see if there's a way to save Strasburg an inning here and there in hopes of squeezing out an extra start in September, he just went with the flow Tuesday. When Strasburg struck out the side in the fifth inning, Johnson couldn't resist sending him out for one more.
"If I hooked him after five innings after he punched out the side, the whole stadium would have wanted to string me up,'' Johnson said.
Strasburg insists that he has a "lot left in the tank" because of a rigorous workout program and refinements that he has made to his delivery throughout the season, but the decision ultimately isn't his to make. It's fashionable to say these pennant-race games in August and September are his personal version of the playoffs, because he's assured of being a spectator when the real playoffs roll around in October. But he's not viewing it that way.
"I'm gonna keep pitching," he said. "I'm in it with these guys for the long run."
Let everyone else do the counting, the speculating and the arguing. As long as Johnson keeps him in the starting rotation, Stephen Strasburg will adhere to a very simple and effective credo: Have ball, will deal.