Note to Nationals: Save Baseball, Shut Stephen Strasburg Down
WASHINGTON –- In Stephen Strasburg's last start on Saturday, when he was pulled in the fifth inning after grimacing after a thrown pitch, more people than there were seats for crammed into the Phillies' Citizens Bank Park. Even in Philadelphia -- which leads the National League in attendance -- that was worth noting.
It just didn't measure up to Strasburg's feat in his first road start in early June at moribund Cleveland, where he attracted an Indians baseball crowd that was twice as big as usual.
That second winning start, sensational too, was enough to get Strasburg etched in the public psyche, where he wound up selling more jerseys in his first month in the big leagues than any player ever. It all got him, the Nationals' rookie pitching sensation, emblazoned on the of "Sports Illustrated" above the headline "National Treasure."
But I was left wondering Monday at Nationals Park, where the Nationals announced they were placing Strasburg on the disabled list for the second time in less than a month, whether Strasburg might turn into a national disaster.
"The story with Stephen is," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said before Monday's game, "he had pain in his elbow."
The elbow. That's what Tommy John surgery ultimately fixes. (Pardon my pessimistic alarm, but I grew up here rooting, as best one could, for the Senators, and with nothing except lousy returns.)
Rizzo said an MRI revealed a strained flexor tendon in Strasburg's right forearm, the one he shook before being removed against the Phillies, and that the club was sending him for a second more advanced MRI to figure out what other precautions should be taken.
It's almost September.
The Nationals opened a series against the Cubs on Monday night 18 games under .500 and 20 games out of first place and lost 9-1.
Strasburg isn't just the National's future, but -- with baseball's most recent generation of stars sullied by the steroids era -- a beacon of hope for the game's future. As MLB executive vice president for business, Tim Brosnan, said on ESPN's "Outside the Lines" in July, "[Strasburg] created an aura and a glow and a buzz that we can't generate on our own."
Let him not be prematurely extinguished.
Save Strasburg. Save baseball. Shut him down, post haste.
This is one time it is too bad our national legislators are at recess. Maybe one of them looking to grandstand would introduce legislation to do what Strasburg's owners refused to do Monday and mothball him from potential further discomfort, or damage, for the rest of this season.
"Let's see [the next test]," Nationals president Stan Kasten said when asked how much consideration there was in the front office of sending Strasburg on an early and much-deserved vacation.
I've seen enough. I can wait till next year to see Strasburg on the mound again. Even if the second exam pronounces Strasburg good to go, there would be nothing to gain from him pitching any more this season and everything to lose. A few more home dates with a packed Nationals Park to see Strasburg surely wouldn't be worth the long-term risk.
It could be that a lot of my angst regarding Strasburg is fueled by the sight of the Cubs in Nationals Park on Monday, for they once featured a pair of fireballers that stared back from an SI cover just in the past decade: Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. Remember them? Cubs' fans certainly do. They all but flamed out far too soon. They threw so hard, so often, so early, that they suffered injuries from which they could never regain what turned out to be short-lived dominance.
Unfortunately, Strasburg is more like Prior and Wood than not. That was a reason some wondered whether the Nationals should even have picked him first in the draft because so many highly thought-of pitchers fail to live up to their hype, or survive.
Strasburg is big. He's strong. He throws hard. His changeup averages almost 90 mph.
Strasburg's results have been marveled at, but not necessarily his mechanics.
"Strasburg does something that I call an upside down arm action," White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper told a Sirius XM radio show last month when Strasburg first went on the DL. "Listen, I'm not wishing this guy bad by any stretch, but for him to have some problems right now when they are really, really watching him. What are they to think when they are trying to get 220 [innings] from him?
"He does something with his arm action that's difficult for a guy, in my mind, to pitch a whole lot of innings on. I call it upside down arm action, some people call it an elbow lead, whatever you want to call it. It reminds me a little bit of Kerry Wood. It reminds me a little bit of Prior. I hope I'm wrong with this because he's an outstanding pitcher."
The Nationals pray Cooper is a mile off-base.
To the Nationals' credit, they have treated their jewel in the window like the precious rock he is. Strasburg first went on the DL after being scratched at the last second, warming up to face the Braves. All he said was his arm felt a little tight and the Nationals all but bubble wrapped him.
Rizzo said Strasburg showed up at the park Monday and pronounced himself fit enough to play catch. The Nationals wouldn't even let him lift his spirits and told him to leave any baseball alone.
Why not then just close the first chapter on Strasburg's pro career right now?
The Nationals even admitted Monday that what Strasburg is suffering from at the moment isn't a first. He went through the same aches and pains at San Diego State, but shook them off and pitched on.
That was good for his college teammates, but not for Strasburg, or baseball at large, which is in need of having such a magnetic talent have a long and prosperous pro career.