USA Today Sports Images
Stephen Strasburg was forced to watch the season's final month from the dugout.
Everyone knew it was coming. Mike Rizzo had made it clear as far back as Sept. 2011, saying the Nationals would hold Stephen Strasburg to an innings limit the following year, shutting him down before season's end.
Nobody, though, could have known just how big a deal the Strasburg Shutdown would become, perhaps the biggest story in baseball through late-summer and early-September.
And when it finally occurred on Sept. 8, with manager Davey Johnson pulling the plug sooner than the club initially planned, reactions and emotions ran the full spectrum, starting with the player at the center of all the hubbub.
"I don't know if I'm ever going to accept it, to be honest with you," Strasburg said hours after learning of the decision. "It's something that I'm not happy about at all. That's not why I play the game. I play the game to obviously be a good teammate and to win. You don't grow up dreaming of playing in the big leagues to get shut down when the games start to matter."
The fact that these games most certainly mattered for the Nationals -- surprise leaders of the NL East and now in the thick of a pennant race -- made this story so significant. Nobody batted an eyelash 12 months earlier when the club made the exact same decision with Jordan Zimmermann, but that club needed a late-season surge just to finish 80-81.
This club led the division nearly the entire season and was positioned to make a deep run through October. Yet the men in charge of the organization never let the team's performance or place in the standings alter the predetermined plan for their young ace.
In fact, they pulled the plug five days earlier than initially planned after watching Strasburg labor through a ragged Sept. 7 start against the Marlins, capping his season at only 159 1/3 innings.
"After yesterday's start, we just figured that mentally and physically, Stephen looked like he was fatigued," Rizzo said. "We decided, what's the difference of 159 1/3 innings or 163 or 164 or 165 1/3 innings?"
Another major contributing factor: All the attention being thrust upon the 24-year-old right-hander, pressure Johnson and Rizzo felt had become too much for him to handle.
"The media hype on this thing has been unbelievable," Johnson said. "I feel it's as hard for him as it would be anybody to get mentally, totally committed, in the ballgame."
Truth be told, Strasburg's pitching performance hadn't been up to its usual lofty standards. After a dominating first half of the season in which he won 10 games and posted a 2.66 ERA to earn his first All-Star appearance, he was highly inconsistent in the second half, posting a 4.14 ERA over his final 10 starts.
That didn't stop pundits, ex-pitchers and anyone with a microphone or internet access from criticizing the Nationals and questioning whether their controversial decision contributed to the team's first-round exit in the postseason.
Would Strasburg's presence have changed the outcome of the NLDS? We'll never know. In theory, he would have started the do-or-die Game 5 against the Cardinals, perhaps pitching deeper into the game than Gio Gonzalez did and perhaps never allowing St. Louis to start chipping away at a 6-0 lead.
Then again, there's no telling how Strasburg would have fared in what would have been his 34th start of the season following Tommy John surgery. And, it should be noted, his inclusion in the playoff rotation would have bumped Ross Detwiler to the bullpen, preventing the young lefty from taking the mound for what proved to be a dominant start in Game 4.
No matter where you stand on the issue, there's no debating the significance of the Strasburg shutdown. It was the biggest story in baseball -- maybe in all of sports -- for weeks, and it will continue to be a story in 2013, as the reins finally come off Strasburg's right arm and the Nationals attempt to prove once and for all they made the right decision.