Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Stephen Strasburg's whirlwind rookie season ended on the ultimate sour note.
Everybody either wanted to know -- or believed they already knew -- why Stephen Strasburg's remarkable rookie season had come to such an abrupt and sad conclusion: Tommy John surgery.
The Nationals babied him too much. No, wait, they weren't cautious enough. They should have known he'd blow out his arm because of his pitching mechanics. Or maybe it's the velocity. You can't throw 100 mph fastballs and 91 mph changeups and expect your elbow to retain its structural integrity. Clearly, this ligament tear had been building up over months and years. Unless it just collapsed under the weight of one unfortunate changeup Saturday night.
The parade of "experts" claiming to know exactly what happened and why was more staggering than any knee-buckling curveball Strasburg has ever thrown. And it was unavoidable. They were everywhere you turned all day.
Perhaps everyone would have been wise to pause for just a moment and listen to what the kid whose life had just been turned upside-down had to say when asked if he'd found himself searching for an explanation the last 24 hours.
"If I keep looking for an explanation, it's just going to eat at me," Strasburg said. "I've got to let it go. I've just got to move on."
Who would've guessed the most mature take on the entire Strasburg saga would have come from the 22-year-old right-hander who will have his elbow cut open in the next few days?
We can all learn something, though, from Strasburg, whose grace and humility and perspective in the face of a career-altering injury surpassed anything he did on the mound this season.
Why did this happen? Because it did. There's no reason to delve deeper than that. Strasburg is a pitcher. Pitchers get hurt.
That's right. It doesn't matter how cautious an organization is with a young hurler. You can limit his innings, limit his pitches, shut him down early and scratch him at the first sign of discomfort. You still can't ensure a guy won't get hurt.
The human shoulder and elbow were not designed to throw a baseball overhand tens of thousands of times. It's about as violent a physical act as you could conceive short of slamming a car door on your arm 100 times every five days.
Some pitchers are blessed with an arm that can survive two decades of professional baseball without ever breaking down. (Hello, Livan Hernandez.) Most, however, simply can't do it. It's only a matter of when, not if, he'll succumb to injury.
"When I see these pitchers throw," Jim Riggleman said, "I'm almost more surprised when they don't end up with surgery."
So there's no use beating up the Nationals for their treatment of Strasburg over the last year. Mike Rizzo certainly isn't.
"We're satisfied with the way he was developed," Rizzo said. "I know Scott Boras is satisfied the way he's been treated and developed, and Stephen is also. We're good with that. Frustrated? Yes. But second-guessing ourselves? No."
Which isn't to say Strasburg's injury won't have a lasting -- and potentially devastating -- effect on this franchise. Fair or unfair, the Nats' plan for approaching contention in 2011 was built around Stephen Strasburg making 30 starts. That won't be happening now.
A boatload of non-Strasburg questions suddenly arise because of Strasburg's injury. Does this alter the Nationals' timetable, and thus alter their approach to free agency? Are they less-inclined to re-sign Adam Dunn now? Is Dunn less-inclined to want to re-sign? Do they go out and spend money on another starting pitcher this winter? Or do they figure it's not worth it to add a couple more wins to a team that is going to need a lot of things to go right to approach a .500 record?
"I don't think there's any correlation between that," Rizzo said when asked about Dunn's future as it relates of Strasburg's surgery. "We've got a plan, a gameplan, to improve the ballclub and to map ourselves a way to become a championship organization in the near future. I think the injury to Stephen and the signing of Adam Dunn are two independent things."
The overriding sense around the organization today was that Strasburg's injury won't significantly alter roster-building. The Nationals have a core of young players already at the big-league level in Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Roger Bernadina, Jordan Zimmermann and Drew Storen. To that group they intend to add the next wave, including Wilson Ramos and Danny Espinosa. And they'll continue to surround those youngsters with a handful of veterans who can help bring the kids along while also holding down important short-term roles themselves.
That's not going to change just because Stephen Strasburg won't be on the Opening Day 2011 roster. The timetable for contention may have been pushed back a bit, but the realists among the front office felt like that wouldn't have happened until 2012 anyway, even with a healthy Strasburg and Zimmermann.
"A year goes fast," Rizzo said during Strasburg's press conference today. "A year from now, this guy next to me will be toeing the rubber, and we'll have two-fifths of our rotation, of what we had planned, on the field at the same time. We're going to be ready to take off from there."
If a year goes fast, then two months go by in the blink of an eye. That's as much time as Strasburg spent on the Nationals' active, big-league roster this summer. Sixty-four days. Within that brief time, he set the world ablaze with a debut performance for the ages, brought massive crowds and merchandise sales to five different major-league ballparks, left 40,000 fans holding their breath when he slipped out of the bullpen moments before a scheduled start, struggled in his return from the DL, dominated one of baseball's toughest lineups for 4 1/3 innings and then ... well, you don't need to be told how this story ended.
"Definitely a whirlwind," Strasburg said. "It kind of sucks to have it end like this, but I got a lot of great experience when I was up here. The weird thing about it is, that last game, that was when everything started to click. That was when I had that feeling. I mean, that was a packed house with some rowdy fans, and I didn't feel like they were there. I was just so locked in and everything was working. And sure enough, something happens."
Yep, something happens. And no amount of second-guessing, analyzing, hand-wringing or self-flogging is going to change that.
Stephen Strasburg's rookie season began with a flourish beyond our wildest dreams, and it ended with a punch to the gut that will sting for quite some time. It certainly didn't play out as anyone could have predicted. But maybe we should have expected that.
When it comes to the health of young pitchers, it's impossible to predict the future. The sooner we all come to grips with that, the easier it will be to move on.