"Stephen, a lot has been made of the innings limit," Jim Bowden said, meandering into a question for the Washington Nationals' '09 no.1 overall pick Stephen Strasburg in an interview on MLB Network Radio during the All-Star festivities in Kansas City in July, "And I'm sure you've been asked it 50 million times, so I'm not going to go there, but just make sure I know, you're going to be pitching Game One of the World Series if the Nationals get there aren't you?"
"Well they're going to have to rip the ball out of my hands, that's all I can say," Strasburg responded, laughing with the hosts as he said it.
The same week that the 24-year-old right-hander uttered those words, he appeared on ESPN980's the Sports Fix with Kevin Sheehan and Thom Loverro, explaining that he understood that the Nats' plans to shut him down would would be widely debated, but although he knew, "Everybody's going to read into and everybody's going to have their opinion," he was also aware, "... that [the Nationals] have my best interest at heart."
Which quote has been repeated more often? Which makes for a better attention-grabbing headline?
Sunday afternoon, after Stephen Strasburg held the St. Louis Cardinals to two hits in six scoreless in which he struck out nine to leave him (15-6) with a 2.94 ERA, 2.63 FIP, 45 walks (2.59 BB/9) and 195 K's (11.23 K/9) in 27 starts and 156.1 IP, Davey Johnson told reporters that after two more starts the Nationals will be taking the ball out of his hands. "I think two starts," the Nats' skipper said, "Unless I let him pitch 10 [innings] in the next one out, which I'm not going to, so I think his last start will be on the 12th." September 12, 2012 vs the New York Mets in Citi Field. Strasburg's 2012 campaign ends.
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo confirmed the news when he spoke to reporters shortly after Davey Johnson's post game, telling reporters including the Washington Post's James Wagner, "'We had our parameters in place at the beginning of the season, we had our philosophies and our protocols,'" and two more starts like Johnson mentioned, "'That seems like the right number of innings to end his season.'" If Strasburg pitches like he did Sunday he'll be going out as Jordan Zimmermann did last year, fully healthy and arguably the Nationals' best starter. The Nats' manager was impressed with what he saw from Strasburg against St. Louis after a rough start against Miami in his previous outing.
"He was going strong," Johnson said, "I've been hooking him little early all year because of the innings count. I think he had another inning in his tank, but also didn't want to run it up and maybe cost him a start. But he was outstanding. He really didn't use his changeup that much, just spotted his fastball and used his curve ball. Had a good feel for those. But he was vintage Strasburg today."
Asked if he thought his pitcher would fight the decision, Rizzo told reporters as quoted in the Washington Post's Mr. Wagner's article, "'I don’t think he’s going to fight me on it, I think he’s going to be unhappy about it, I know he’ll be unhappy about it. He is an ultimate competitor, but we’ve taken that out of his hands."
Though the decision is being "taken out of his hands" as the Nats' GM explained, when Strasburg was asked about the comments after Sunday's game, even after the well-documented conversation with Davey Johnson on the way home from Miami in which he was informed he'd have 2 or 3 more starts, the pitcher still said, "I'm just focused on the next start, that's all I can really focus on right now, but we're going to have to sit down and talk here soon."
Asked if it was hard to block out all the discussion of his future, Strasburg said, "Not really, I just don't have anything to say. I'm in it with these guys, and we still got a long way to go, but I'm going to fight with them til the end." While several reports have framed this as a defiant statement on the pitcher's part, the context in which he says it, "I'm in it with these guys... I'm going to fight with them til the end," would seem to be more a statement that he's going to do all he can to help his teammates while he can rather than a preemptive challenge of the plan to shut him down following the September 12th start.
The "I'm in it with these guys" part is an important line of that quote, without it there's a defiant Strasburg, challenging the decision, with it, there's a player wanting to do all he can while he can to help a team that seems destined to bring postseason baseball back to the nation's capital for the first time since 1933. They'll have to rip the ball out of Strasburg's hand, yes, but as he said during the All-Star Break, he knows, "... that [the Nationals] have my best interest at heart." That reading of the comments is also more in line with what Strasburg has said before, telling 106.7 the FAN in D.C.'s Holden Kushner and Danny Rouhier during that All-Star Break that he knew then how the season would eventually end:
"All I can do is keep pitching and keep helping this team win as many games as we can. When they think it's time for us to shut it down, then it's going to be their call."
Maybe it's just that some want the pitcher to fight the decision, to force the Nationals to rip the ball out of his hands that's leading some to see Strasburg's comments as a sign of defiance, but that's why the decision has been taken out of his hands. Of course the pitcher is going to want to keep going. It's heartbreaking to imagine someone contributing as much as he has to the Nationals' growth not getting to participate in the postseason if the Nationals are in fact able to make it there, but as Mike Rizzo explained to Kushner and Rouhier last week, that's why the decision on what the GM sees as a "developmental" issue isn't left up to the player.
"If you've ever been around a player," Rizzo told the hosts when asked if Strasburg's opinion of his own health and desire to keep pitching would factor into the shutdown discussion, "They are the worst self-evaluators in the world.":
"These guys are so ultra-competitive and so ultra-talented that they believe in their heart of hearts and in their mind that they are invincible and they can do anything [if] they set their mind to it. So, it's my job to look after the players and their well-being, because a player will always take the ball, because when you're talking about a player as talented and as competitive as Stephen Strasburg you will really have to rip the ball out of his hand, because that's how competitive he is. He's there to pitch. He wants to pitch, but I think that in the best interest of him and which means in the best interest of the Nationals sometimes we have to make decisions that are unpopular to the players for the well-being of that player and for the franchise."
If you ask Strasburg if he can go he's going to say yes. The Nationals will have to rip the ball out of his hands. He's not going to be happy about it. But no pitcher would be, that's why the decision isn't left up to him. But there's no doubt in the mind of anyone who's followed this team and there shouldn't be in Strasburg's mind either, that every pitch and every inning he's thrown this year has led the Nationals to where they are now, even if his season ends next Wednesday, he's played an important role in getting the Nationals where they are going.