Johnson: Strasburg will follow doctor’s orders, club’s innings edict

Davey Johnson loves everything about Stephen Strasburg: the right-hander’s effective arsenal of pitches, the way he goes into attack mode, his focus and determination.

There’s no question that Strasburg - even coming off Tommy John ligament replacement surgery and making five major league starts in September - is the Nationals’ best pitcher heading into 2012.

But now that he’s sure he’s coming back as the team’s manager next season, Johnson isn’t about to do anything to jeopardize the 23-year-old’s burgeoning career. So when he was asked during a Monday morning conference call whether he’d have any thoughts about changing the Nationals’ plans to limit Strasburg’s innings in 2012, Johnson quickly nipped in the bud any potential controversy.

“I’m going with the medical experts and what they think is the best thing to do,” Johnson said. “What I saw at the end of last year was a very healthy Stephen Strasburg. He reminded me of a guy who’s never been injured.”

Strasburg went 1-1 with a 1.50 ERA and 24 strikeouts over 24 innings. He picked up a victory in his final start of the season - in the finale at Sun Life Stadium over the Florida Marlins - matching his season high with six innings.

General manager Mike Rizzo said that Strasburg will be on a strict innings limit in 2012, even though he’s the odds-on favorite to be the team’s opening day starter at Chicago on April 5. Just how many innings Strasburg will pitch next season remains a closely guarded secret - Rizzo and Johnson won’t divulge the figure for what they have said is competitive reasons - but it’s likely the Nationals will follow a similar schedule as that employed in 2011 by right-hander Jordan Zimmermann.

Coming off Tommy John surgery in August 2009, ZImmermann made seven starts at the end of 2010, going 1-2 with a 4.94 ERA in 31 innings pitched. Last season, the 25-year-old made 26 starts and posted an 8-11 record with a 3.18 ERA. The key number for Zimmermann, however, was the 161 1/3 innings he piled up before being shut down after an Aug. 28 start at Cincinnati.

It’s assumed Strasburg’s 2012 will closely mirror Zimmermann’s 2011, the the Nationals seeking creative ways to juggle the rotation to skip the pitcher to preserve him as deep into the season as possible. However, Rizzo has said that if the Nationals are in contention in September, a pennant or wild card race won’t alter the team’s conservative approach to Strasburg’s first full post-surgery season.