WASHINGTON — Almost as soon as Stephen Strasburg let go of his first pitch Friday night — a 95-mile-per-hour fastball, for the record — Nationals manager Davey Johnson sensed that it was time for the pitcher’s season to be over.
The team had previously announced that Strasburg would start for the final time this season on Wednesday, his innings limited to account for youth and the vagaries of recovery from Tommy John surgery.
But given the distraction for Strasburg, for the team, for everyone, Johnson decided that enough was enough. Strasburg’s final start would be his effort on Friday night, a three-inning, five-run outing that matched the shortest start of his career, and showed his mental strain.
Strasburg called the decision “pretty shocking.”
“I don’t know if I’m ever going to accept it, to be honest,” Strasburg said. “It’s something that I’m not happy about at all. That’s not why I play the game. I play the game to obviously be a good teammate and win.
“You don’t grow up dreaming of playing in the big leagues to get shut down when the games start to matter. It’s going to be a tough one to swallow.”
He talked to the Nationals about reversing the decision — which is supported by doctors — but they were firm, despite the fact that he feels great physically at this point.
“The media hype on this thing has been unbelievable,” Johnson said. “I feel it’s as hard for him as it would be anybody to get mentally totally committed in a ballgame. And he’s reached his innings limit that was set two years ago. So we can get past this and talk about other things for a change.”
The question now is whether (and how) the Nationals could have managed this better. In his press conference announcing the decision, Johnson clearly put the onus on the media, on the hype surrounding a team shutting down a healthy pitcher in the middle of September with a chance to win the World Series.
Washington is clearly taking the long-term view, as it did last year with pitcher Jordan Zimmermann. The difference, though, was that the Nationals were out of the race then. They are far from out of it now, with a 6½-game lead in the NL East.
“It’s not just about one player,” said Strasburg, 24. “They want me to be here for many years to come. It’s an unfortunate situation.
“It’s a lot harder decision because we won this year. I don’t think anybody would be talking about it if we were just finishing out the year in September. But I want to be here for the long haul.”
Asked if they would do anything differently, considering the media attention, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said, “I don’t think so. I think that we’re caring for one of our great young pitchers. We had a very good plan of attack going into this thing. It’s not our first rodeo.”
Zimmermann was limited to 161⅓ innings last season, his first full one back from Tommy John surgery. He had pitched just 31 innings the year before. Strasburg ends his season at 159⅓ innings, after pitching 24 innings in 2011.
Despite significant criticism, especially from former players, the Nationals have argued that they had no other choice but to do it the way they did, a sentiment with which Zimmermann, having been through it, agrees.
But it wasn’t exactly the same situation. There wasn’t the hype. There wasn’t the distraction. There wasn’t the incessant media attention. Zimmermann was simply bored for a month. Strasburg will be benched for the first postseason baseball in Washington since 1933.
“I don’t know,” Rizzo said, when asked if another team’s general manager could make the same call. “I know Mike Rizzo with the Washington Nationals can do it, will do it, has done it. We’re committed to it.
“Is it an easy thing to do? No. Have we taken a lot of heat for it? Yes. And if I had a chance to do it over again, would I still do it? Most definitely.”
Still, though Rizzo disputed the point, Johnson called the situation “a distraction,” and said that it has taken a toll on Strasburg, as well as his teammates. The pitcher recently mentioned to Johnson that he was having difficulty sleeping.
Strasburg did say that he “looked the other way,” choosing not to deal with the situation, not to worry. He thought it would change. It didn’t.
But the end came sooner than he thought, with Johnson pulling Strasburg into the training room Saturday morning for a conversation that ended the ace’s season.
“My job is to do what I think is best for the player,” Johnson said. “And this is what’s best.”
With Strasburg out of the rotation, the Nationals will turn to John Lannan, who spent the season in Triple A. They are losing a pitcher with a 15-6 record and a 3.16 ERA, with 197 strikeouts. But they are also losing a pitcher who had become inconsistent of late. In his last five starts, Strasburg was 3-2 with a 4.50 ERA.
“This is the plan we put into place back on Feb. 1,” Rizzo said. “We’ve been true to the plan the whole way and we haven’t wavered from it one bit. This is just a culmination of that plan, and I believe in my heart that it’s the right thing to do for the player. And the right thing to do for the player is the right thing to do for the franchise.”