La Velle Neal's Sunday Insider: Washington has hand on stop button with Strasburg

The Nationals are having a historic season, but that won't keep them from soon shutting down ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg.

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Washington pitcher Stephen Strasburg, two years removed from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery, is 14-5 this season with a 2.91 ERA and 173 strikeouts in 139 1/3 innings.

Photo: Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press

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The Nationals are rolling with the best record in the major leagues, and Washington is only weeks away from playing host to its first playoff game since 1933.

But righthander Stephen Strasburg will be a spectator and not a participator, if the Nationals stick to the plan they had even before he was injured in 2010.

Strasburg once was jokingly referred to in this space as the Optimus Prime of pitching prospects when he was at San Diego State. But he is all that. The man throws fastballs at 100 miles per hour and a changeup that's faster (90 mph) than Carl Pavano's fastball.

Strasburg is 14-5 with a 2.91 ERA and 173 strikeouts in 139 1/3 innings and is everything you want in an ace.

Strasburg also is coming off Tommy John surgery two seasons ago. And teams have been cautious with pitchers in their first full seasons back from elbow reconstruction surgery.

Strasburg came back last season and threw 44 innings between the majors and minors. The Nationals warned back then that he would be shut down sometime during the 2012 season, perhaps between 160 and 180 innings, but an exact number never has been given. It will be based on how the Nationals view Strasburg's velocity, quality of pitches, stressful innings, etc. They planned to watch his innings his first few years in the majors, anyway.

The Strasburg Shutdown is coming. His Nationals teammates are bracing for it. Fans are stressing out. In a radio interview on ESPN last week, former Atlanta Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone suggested Strasburg find a way out of Washington if the ball is taken out of his hands for the postseason.

You never know when you get another chance at a title. That's the reason for the uproar.

The Nationals are ignoring it all.

Washington General Manager Mike Rizzo is a longtime talent evaluator who worked with the White Sox and Red Sox before helping the Diamondbacks get off the ground in 1998, and he was the first hire by the Lerner family when they took over the Nationals in 2006. Rizzo is very confident.

The research the Nationals have done and the advice they have sought show it's dangerous to give a big workload to a pitcher coming back from Tommy John surgery. No one is sure of how much is too much, but teams are warned to proceed with caution, and that's what Rizzo will do.

How about putting Strasburg in the bullpen? Have him take a month off? Save those innings for October?

Nope. Rizzo wanted Strasburg to have a consistent season. The young man's career will not be put in jeopardy in order to chase one championship.

You might not agree with the decision, but it's one the Nationals have arrived at after considerable thought and research.

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