Nationals’ Strasburg shutdown is DC’s big debate

Posted Aug. 23, 2012, at 10:14 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Chipper Jones knows that a World Series title is something that comes along, at least in his case, just once in a very long career. He got his with the Atlanta Braves at age 23.

A year younger than Washington’s Stephen Strasburg is now.

“If I was sitting over in that clubhouse,” Jones said this week, “I would hate to squander this opportunity.”

Jones was weighing in on the great inside-the-beltway debate — the Nationals’ impending shutdown of Strasburg — that has consumed baseball and beyond as summer heads toward fall. Forget Obama vs. Romney. Or RGIII vs. Luck. If nothing else, the Washington’s plans to shut down its ace pitcher in the middle of the city’s first serious pennant race in more than a half-century has caused the baseball team to do the once-unthinkable: steal attention from politics and the Redskins.

“I think it’s very wise,” said the city’s mayor, Vincent Gray, who recently gave his two cents’ worth to reporters following an announcement about flooding in the nation’s capital.

“The young man has his entire career ahead of him,” the mayor added.

It’s a dilemma that pits old-timers who fondly remember the days when pitchers pitched complete games and never missed starts vs. the new-agers who talk of pitch-counts and consider six decent innings to be a quality start. It eats at Washingtonians who finally have a chance to witness baseball glory — the city’s last World Series championship came in 1924 — but don’t want to see the fra nchise risk the health of its prime jewel. It gnaws at the win-now mindset players are taught to embrace, asking them to instead think of a future that may or may not come pass.

“Everybody knows he wants to pitch. He’s a competitor,” said Jones, now 40 and in his final major league season. “He’s not in it in a 162-game regular season for nothing. He wants that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow just like everybody else. I see both sides. I get it, but as baseball players we want to hunt it down and kill it — right now. And they have a chance to slay the dr agon, and I’m sure 24 other guys over there feel much the same way.”

Strasburg is 15-5 with a 2.85 ERA and leads the National League with 183 strikeouts. He has won four straight starts and looked unhittable at times in his last outing, a 10-strikeout, rain-interrupted performance against the Braves on Tuesday.

But this is his first full season since undergoing elbow ligament replacement surgery — the famous Tommy John procedure — and the Nationals have made it clear since the start of spring training that they will limit his load, just as they did last year when TJ-comeback teammate Jordan Zimmermann was shut down after passing 160 innings on Aug. 28.

Zimmermann’s innings limit was noncontroversial because the Nationals weren’t a playoff team a year ago, unlike this year’s team that awoke Thursday with a six-game NL East lead after taking two of three from the Braves. It’s safe to say Zimmermann, for example, was never fodder for an appearance by the former mayor of New York on “Meet the Press.”

“Let him pitch,” Rudy Giuliani told the Sunday morning news show this week when asked about Strasburg, in a video posted online. “I wouldn’t give up maybe home-field advantage in the playoffs. The guy’s a big strong guy, the operation seems to have worked. A lot of guys for 100 years have been pitching until the end of the season.”

Yep. Everybody has an opinion. And manager Davey Johnson has heard them all.

“It’s really easy for the bloggers and the tweeters and all those people to say ‘Why don’t you do this?’ or ‘We can do that. Get him out of the bullpen’ and blah, blah, blah, blah,” Johnson said. “I’ve heard it all, and I said, it’s a good thing you guys aren’t managing, and I’m the one that’s managing. You do what’s best for the player. Always. No. 1.”

There’s only one person whose opinion truly matters, and that’s general manager Mike Rizzo, and he’s managed to be both definitive and ambiguous. Rizzo said the Nationals, using the best medical advice available, will shut down Strasburg at some point, but the GM won’t divulge a timetable or a targeted number of innings, essentially saying he’ll know Strasburg’s done when he sees it.

“We’ve got a plan in place,” Rizzo said. “And we’re adhering to it.”

Johnson offered the biggest clue yet about the plan on Wednesday, saying that he’ll need to replace Strasburg in the rotation for the final two or three starts of the regular season. That would give the right-hander perhaps five more starts, ending his season around Sept. 19 in the neighborhood of 170-180 innings.

Rizzo has dismissed many popular alternatives that would keep Strasburg pitching into the playoffs, including a six-man rotation, skipped starts, a bullpen stint or an early shutdown followed by a restart in October. Those alternatives, for various reasons, wouldn’t significantly cut down on the wear-and-tear on Strasburg’s arm because of the extra throwing he’d have to do when he’s not pitching.

The person who pleads ignorance the most is Strasburg himself, who obviously would like to find a way to keep pitching and says he is in the dark like everyone else when it comes to the team’s plans.

“It’s funny. Nobody talks to me personally about it,” he said after Tuesday’s start. “Obviously, I can either scour the Internet or watch all the stuff being said on TV, or I can just keep pitching and watch the Golf Channel, I guess.”

One fact in that works in favor of the shutdown is that the Nationals are still a very good team on the days Strasburg doesn’t play. The pitching staff leads the majors in ERA, and the offense has outscored opponents by more than 100 runs despite injuries that kept key players such as Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse and Jayson Werth out for large chunks of the season.

“Obviously, you can’t really compare anyone with someone like Stephen,” third baseman Zimmerman said. “But this is a team that has kind of persevered (through) injuries and things like that. This will be no different.”

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