Ted Leavengood: They’ll have to rip the ball out of Strasburg’s hands

Any concern that the Nationals’ pitching staff would waver in the second half was dispelled by the first three games in Miami.

“Quality start” hardly describes what Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg served up over the weekend. They limited the Fish to three runs in three games which should have been enough for more than two wins.

But the All-Star break turned a simmering debate about the Nationals’ pitching into an open debate. During a slow sports week, the topic that filled the space was Strasburg’s innings limit.

The tell came during mid-week when Strasburg told Jim Bowden on SiriusXM, “they’re going to have to rip the ball out of my hands.” That was Strasburg’s reply when asked about whether he would pitch in the postseason should the Nationals be so lucky.

The recent “Turn Back the Clock” game featured the 1924 World Series teams and there was enough talk about Walter Johnson and Freddie Lindstrom to get any self-respecting fan projecting this remarkably talented Washington Nationals team in some kind of playoffs, dreaming of another championship series. And no one believes that a competitor like Strasburg, who again today led the offense, is sitting in the dugout and watching as his mates take the field for the seventh and deciding game of any playoff series if they need him.

No, he said it himself. He wants the frigging ball and if his arm falls off the next morning, at least he pitched in about as important a game as it gets.
So call me a dope Tom Boswell, but if this team has the baseball gods behind it, if they keep up the pace, then whatever it takes, at some point, like Walter Johnson coming in for the ninth inning of the seventh game in 1924 and taking the win in the 12th, there is an emotional moment waiting when Strasburg flaunts the odds and wagers everything on the here and now and to hell with next year.

strasburg pitching red sidebar.jpgI respect Boswell’s perspective, however, and that of Mike Rizzo and others among the Nationals’ brain trust, so I talked to Bill Blewett, a Baltimore Sun sports writer who has a book coming out entitled, The Science of the Fastball. Blewett has made an extensive study of the bio-mechanics of pitching and his research is quite impressive. Bill talked to me about two issues pertaining to Strasburg and I will save the best for last.

First, he explained arm fatigue and how it works. One of the more important concepts is something called differential fatigue whereby crucial parts of the pitcher’s arm lose their strength first. The forearm muscles and elbow ligaments, from which much of the torque for a fastball emanate, tire before the wrist and flexor tendons, which also play a key role. Two things will result from this fatigue - control and speed will diminish. Pitching coaches say the pitcher is not finishing his pitches, that he is leaving the ball up in the zone. But the culprit is really just that the forearm has depleted its stores of energy.

One thing that contributes to fatigue, according to Blewett, is the work pitchers put in between starts. Bullpen sessions and conditioning deplete the glycogen battery of a pitcher’s arm. Pitchers could work on fewer days rest if they devoted the time between starts to recharging their pitching batteries and allowing the body to replenish and repair the pitching arm between starts, according to Blewett.

The principle can be seen easiest in a pitcher who has a bad outing. According to Blewett, the bad outing is caused by arm fatigue that catches up to the thrower over numerous outings. Like a battery, the arm’s energy depletes progressively until he goes out and has almost nothing. Then, after getting shelled and leaving in the third inning, his arm heals because it endures less stress from the reduced workload. Like magic, the pitcher has his old stuff the next outing.

The concept applies to Strasburg who was beginning to tire before the break. He had one of his worst outings on June 30, when his control was noticeably absent and he exited after only three innings. According to Blewett, it is a natural correction and sure enough, Strasburg has had two of his best games with the extra rest. With the Nationals keeping a tight leash on Strasburg throughout the season, the next 50 innings -- that should take him through early September - should be very, very good.

The most interesting question Blewett answered was Strasburg’s innings limit. While he does not believe such limits make sense, if you build a system of conditioning for the season that works one way, you cannot change it in mid-stream. Strasburg’s approach has been predicated on an innings limit and it should be respected when the time comes.

But I asked Blewett whether after the end of the season, Strasburg could pitch in the playoffs. Does it put any extra stress on Strasburg to pitch after extended rest like he would get from being out of action for as much as a month? According to Blewett’s hypothesis, Strasburg is not only capable of pitching at that point, but he should pitch even better had he not had the month off.

If Zimmermann, Gonzalez and company are at all overwhelmed as the playoffs loom, not to worry. The cavalry might be summoned to sweep in like Cossacks in the form of Strasburg. Like Johnson coming in to pitch the last three innings of the seventh game of 1924 World Series, Strasburg may be the Nationals’ secret weapon this October. Is it a fairy tale? Every great playoff series is a thing of legend, something a little out of the ordinary. It is a tall tale waiting to be written, and for that we shall just have to see what we shall see.

To hear a complete interview with Bill Blewett, listen here.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released last June. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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