Citing media speculation more intense that they could have imagined and a lack of effectiveness in recent starts, the Nationals have decided to shut down right-hander Stephen Strasburg effective immediately, manager Davey Johnson said this morning.
"I just told Stephen his year is over," Johnson said in his morning session with reporters before today's 1:05 p.m. game against the Miami Marlins. "He's had a great year. I know what he's gone through nationally the last couple of weeks. The media hype on this thing has been unbelievable. I feel it's hard for him, as it would be for anybody, to get mentally ... committed in the ballgame."
The 24-year-old Strasburg underwent ligament replacement surgery on his right elbow on Sept. 3, 2010 and returned last season to make five starts. This season, he was under a strict innings limit - it started at 160 innings in spring training and was adjusted to between 160-180 innings during the season - and Johnson announced last week that Strasburg would make two more starts, last night at home against the Marlins and Sept. 12 at Citi Field against the Mets.
But Strasburg lasted only three innings last night, matching his shortest outing of the season, and allowed five runs on six hits, walking three and striking out two. He finished the season 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA in 28 starts, with 48 walks and 197 strikeouts in 159 1/3 innings.
In what proved to be his penultimate start of 2012, Strasburg picked up the win Sept. 2 at home against the defending world champion Cardinals, allowing two hits over six shutout innings and fanning 10. But in his previous outing, Aug. 28 at Miami, he struggled badly, yielding seven runs (five earned) on nine hits in five innings of an eventual 9-0 defeat.
Johnson said he met with pitching coach Steve McCatty and general manager Mike Rizzo after Strasburg's start Friday night and told them of his plan to pull the plug on the right-hander's season. Though Rizzo has insisted all season that he alone would determine when Strasburg threw his final pitch, Johnson said he made the final decision.
"I made the call," Johnson said. "My job is to do what I think is best for the player. This is what's best."
Asked how Strasburg took the news, Johnson said, "He's emotional about it. He's a competitor. He's one heck of a pitcher and one heck of a competitor. I know he's been struggling with it for weeks. I know he didn't sleep good thinking about it."
It was Strasburg's mental approach, more than his physical performance, that dictated the change of plans, the manager said. But mental fatigue over the impending shutdown - which has been the hot-button topic on sports talk radio and the blogosphere for weeks - eventually led to a dropoff in the right-hander's production in Johnson's eyes.
"I don't see the crispness, I don't see the ball jumping out of his hand," Johnson said. " ... This game's 99.5 percent mental and he's only human. I don't know how anybody can be totally mentally concentrating on the job at hand with the media hype. I think we would be risking more by sending him back out."
Johnson deftly evaded a question about whether the club misjudged how intense the media spotlight would be on the decision to shut Strasburg down in the middle of a pennant race. But he didn't deny that the attention was unwanted and had started to take on a life of its own.
"I'm really worn out, seeing it all myself. ... It takes its toll mentally, not only on Stephen but the rest of the guys on the club," Johnson said. "It's a distraction."
Left-hander John Lannan would slide into Strasburg's slot in the rotation, Johnson said.
More coming ...