It was long ago that Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo made the decision to limit Stephen Strasburg to between 160 and 180 innings this season. This decision was made to protect Strasburg's right arm in his first full season after ligament-replacement surgery. Rizzo is considering the long-term interest of the franchise and trying to protect the future of the 24-year-old with unlimited potential.
The decision is understood in the Nationals' clubhouse. At the same time, it's unpopular. Players live in the moment. They are aware that they may never have another moment like this one, regardless of how promising both the Nationals' and Strasburg's futures appear to be. The idea of playoff baseball in the Nation's Capital is becoming real. The Nationals have baseball's best record and a legitimate opportunity to challenge for a World Series. And their front office, firm in their belief, will ask the team to play without their best pitcher.
"I get their side," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "But our side is, the playoffs aren't guaranteed. You don't want to shut your best guy down—or one of your best guys, because we've got a bunch of them—if you're never going to go back there. If I knew for the next two or three years we're going to go back, then it's probably an easy decision.
"This is about the health of a pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery," Rizzo said back in May. "It's not a development issue like we faced with Bryce Harper. Timetables on development can change, just because players all develop at different rates in all different scenarios. To me, this is a longevity question. It's a health question. It's caring about the player and the person more so than the won-loss record."
Last season, the Nationals shut down Jordan Zimmermann after 161 innings, as he pitched his first full season with a reconstructed elbow. This season, Zimmermann is a candidate for the Cy Young award with a 2.35 ERA, third best in the National League.
Strasburg still has a handful of starts left this year. At some point relatively soon, perhaps a month or so from now, Strasburg will make the final start of this amazing Nationals season. The people most affected, the Nationals' players, will carry on, but not without grief.
"Yeah, I'll shed a tear the day he gets shut down," utility player Mark DeRosa said. "There's no doubt about that."