Resolute Rizzo on Strasburg edict: “I believe in my heart it’s the right thing to do”

If you expected any sense of relief from Mike Rizzo that Stephen Strasburg’s shutdown day had finally arrived - albeit five starts earlier than anticipated - think again. The Nationals general manager painted Saturday’s announcement that his prized right-hander had thrown his last pitch with resolution rather than resignation.

“Business as usual,” Rizzo said at the end of a conversation with reporters following the news that Strasburg would not pitch again in 2012. “It’s a plan we put into place back on Feb. 1 and we’ve been true to the plan the whole way and we haven’t wavered from it one bit. This is just a culmination of that plan. I believe in my heart it’s the right thing to do for the player and the right thing to do for the franchise.”

Rizzo, whose steadfast refusal to budge from his decree to limit Strasburg’s innings in his first full season following ligament replacement surgery, has become the flashpoint of a media firestorm in recent weeks because the notion of shutting down a team’s ace in the midst of a pennant race is unheard of.

But the GM on Saturday reiterated that he was merely following a carefully crafted recovery plan arrived at after offseason consultation with the team’s medical staff and Strasburg’s agent, Scott Boras.

“We’ve said all along that we’ve got past histories in these type of rehabilitations and these types of surgeries and how they get back to play (the) year after Tommy John surgery is all-important,” Rizzo said. “We followed the protocol, we had the parameters set in mind. After yesterday’s start, we just figured that mentally and physically, Stephen looked like he was fatigued. We decided, what’s the difference between 159 1/3 innings or 163 or (164) or (165) and 1/3 innings. We said, let’s pull the plug today and let’s move on with the season and try to finish this season off positively.”

Strasburg lasted only three innings Friday night against the Marlins, the second time in three starts that he’s struggled with his command and delivery. Ultimately, Rizzo said, the team acknowledged that the right-hander’s focus problems during bullpen sessions and early in games were signals that he was beginning to wear down a little, common occurrences in the first full season following Tommy John surgery. Particularly notable, Rizzo said, was Strasburg’s inability to finish off his pitches, especially his change-up.

“You put two and two together with the parameters we had in place already and it was a fairly easy decision to say, ‘Let’s pull the plug after today instead of having one more start and six more innings in New York City,’ ” Rizzo explained.

While manager Davey Johnson, who delivered the news to Strasburg on Saturday morning, said that the media frenzy surrounding the impending shutdown was creating a distraction that neither Strasburg nor the Nationals could dismiss, Rizzo disputed that notion.

“I don’t think it became a distraction whatsoever,” Rizzo said. “This team is battle-tested. They’re a terrific major league ballclub with great makeup and guys that know how to prepare for games. You could tell by the product on the field that this had no lingering effect whatsoever.”

Nor did Johnson’s proclamation Friday night after Strasburg’s latest start that he thought it was time to take the ball out of Strasburg’s hand. Rizzo had said since spring training that the decision on when Strasburg would reach his innings limit would be his and his alone.

“I think the culmination of the focus problems and the physical fatigue took its toll on (Strasburg),” Rizzo said. “I think that what the doctors had prescribed for him, the innings parameters, were right on. I think it was a prudent time to pull the plug. It was a plan we had since Feb. 1, so I don’t think too many people should be surprised by it.

“Davey saw what I saw yesterday. Davey and I, like I said, are hand in glove in this situation, like we are in all situations. We discuss everything. We were in total agreement. If you want to paint it as Davey’s decision, that’s fine. Or my decision. It’s our decision.”

Strasburg finished 2012 with a 15-6 record, a 3.16 ERA, 48 walks and 197 strikeouts in 159 1/3 innings.

“It would have been nice for it to end on a positive note, but he’s had a terrific season for us. ... He got us to where we’re at right now,” Rizzo said. “He was a huge, huge part of where we’re at right now and was one of the major contributors to the first-place ballclub. ... We’ve got a lot of bright, happy days ahead of us, watching Stephen Strasburg pitch.”

Rizzo said he hadn’t yet spoken with Strasburg and, asked if he had any sympathy for the way his ultra-competitive ace’s season ended, said, “He’s going to have to accept that it’s on his best behalf and we’re going to have to move on from here.”

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