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Washington Nationals’ Star Pitcher Stephen Strasburg Benched For Rest of Season

September 10, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Putting health before ambition, the Washington Nationals benched star pitcher 24-year-old Stephen Strasburg near the end of a successful season. One of the best pitchers of his generation, the Nats hope to protect Strasburg's long-term health after elbow surgery in 2010. Ray Suarez talks to Sports Illustrated's Joe Lemire.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to a baseball story that surprised many fans, as the playoff season nears: What’s behind a controversial decision to end a star pitcher’s season when he is seemingly healthy?

Ray Suarez has that story.

RAY SUAREZ: Twenty-four-year-old pitching ace Stephen Strasburg is considered among the best of his generation. With a record of 15 wins and six losses, the right-handed fastballer has had a big season for the Washington Nationals, who appear headed for the postseason.

The city hasn’t won a baseball championship since 1924. But Strasburg had elbow reconstruction surgery in 2010, and team management announced yesterday he has pitched his final game of the year.

It’s a decision stirring up reactions from anger to surprise.

Joe Lemire covers baseball for “Sports Illustrated” and joins me now.

And, Joe, originally I think the team announced he was going to pitch his last game on September 12. So they pulled the plug a little early, didn’t they?

JOE LEMIRE, “Sports Illustrated”: They did.

They ultimately decided that there had been such a distraction, whether it’s through the media or just on himself personally, putting pressure on himself, and they decided that he was done.

He had had a couple of rocky outings among his last few starts. So they decided that, you know, now is good enough.

RAY SUAREZ: Has a team in a pennant race ever done anything like this before?

JOE LEMIRE: No. This is wholly unprecedented.

You have only seen in the last, you know, decade or so a real heightened awareness of pitchers’ health in terms of pitch count and innings limits. So we’re in somewhat new territory anyway, but there have been very few who have been in the situation that the Nationals are in — in fact, none.

They’re in first place in their division. They are almost certainly going to make the playoffs and, even when they get there, are going to be a strong contender.

The Nationals have decided that Strasburg, you know, the 24-year-old who can throw up to almost 100 miles an hour, is too valuable an asset to push too far so soon after elbow surgery, Tommy John surgery, where they had to do a reconstruction of the ulnar collateral ligament.

RAY SUAREZ: So….

JOE LEMIRE: And the Nationals have been doing — yes?

RAY SUAREZ: Go ahead. Finish your thought.

JOE LEMIRE: Just that the Nationals have been doing a lot of internal studies among other young pitchers who have had similar surgery, and sort of looking at their track records based on the number of innings they have thrown soon after the surgery.

One of which is actually his teammate, Jordan Zimmermann, who had had it a year previously, pitched about the same 160 innings last year and enjoyed a terrific season this year.

So, they have been trying to mix together as much data as they can and trying to make an informed decision for the betterment of the pitchers’ future and the team’s future for the next several years, rather than putting all of their eggs in just this one basket this season.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there skeptics over the Nationals’ decision to in effect choose tomorrow over today, perhaps save a kid’s arm, save a long-term prospect, but then take a chance with this year’s World Series?

JOE LEMIRE: There are plenty of skeptics. Probably the majority opinion is a certain skepticism. Each individual pitcher reacts so differently to workloads.

Even a certain number of innings may mean one thing for one pitcher, but another pitcher may have thrown a lot more pitches in a lot more high-stress situations, with the bases loaded, rather than others.

 

So, there’s no clear-cut decision here. But the Nationals say they have done their best to ask medical professionals, people in baseball and, as I said, studied the track records of other recent pitchers, and make the most informed decision they can.

RAY SUAREZ: Strasburg isn’t happy about the decision himself, is he?

JOE LEMIRE: No, he said that he — exactly that, that he wasn’t happy and that he had trouble getting over it, that as a kid, you always dream of, you know, playing and winning a World Series, and that it would be difficult for him to not be with his teammates as they make a run for it.

But he also had a bit of a reluctant agreement that the doctor who performed the surgery is one of the people who was polled for this study, and he understands that if people in the medical profession are standing by this, that he should too.

RAY SUAREZ: Does it mean going against the culture of a lot of big league sports, where we lionize, we make heroes out of people who play hurt, who stick it out, who shake it off and run back on the field?

JOE LEMIRE: Yes, it really is unique in that regard.

Even on a daily basis, when you see the starting pitcher out on the mound and the manager comes out to relieve him of duty for the rest of the game, how often do you see the starting pitcher stand there clutching that baseball, not wanting to give it up, even though he knows he has to.

It certainly is, as I said, unique in how proactive it is. And the issue is — and the general manager, Mike Rizzo, who is the man behind this decision, has said that he knows he will never really know if this was the exact right decision.

You know, they could go on and win the World Series without him, and then, of course, it will look good, but they won’t really know if having stopped him at 160 innings would really help his long-term future.

At the same token, he still could get hurt. There are so many variables with pitching. You know, pitchers are still getting injured at an alarming rate, despite the amount of time and money that has gone into researching their health.

So, a lot remains to be seen, but he is standing by his decision. And in some tokens, it’s admirable that he is putting someone’s health ahead of — yes, putting his health first.

RAY SUAREZ: Joe Lemire of “Sports Illustrated,” thanks for joining us.

JOE LEMIRE: Sure. Thank you.