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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Nationals smart to set foundation for future

Nationals smart to set foundation for future

Nationals smart to set foundation for future
Let us record that this latest chapter in Stephen Strasburg's Major League career was a smashing success.

When he was fresh and strong, he was arguably baseball's most dominant pitcher. He had electric stuff and a bulldog mentality.

In Strasburg's first 15 starts, he pitched 90 innings with 23 walks and 118 strikeouts. He compiled a 2.60 ERA in those games, and the Washington Nationals went 12-3.

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To Nats general manager Mike Rizzo, these 15 games were a glimpse into the future. This is the guy he believed he was getting with the first pick of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft.

The Nationals were thrilled to get Strasburg then, and three years later, they're still thrilled. They remain confident he's on his way to being one of baseball's best pitchers over the next decade.

As for this season, they were curious to see how it would play out and how Strasburg's surgically repaired right elbow would hold up. But in those first 15 starts, they saw what they wanted to see.

They never forgot that Strasburg was 23 years old on Opening Day, and that he'd never thrown more than 123 innings in a professional season.

Over the past 20 years, Rizzo had collected volumes of data about what happens when pitchers under the age of 25 are overworked. With Strasburg, he had two concerns.

First, there was the right elbow itself. Strasburg is so competitive that Rizzo worried he'd attempt to pitch through aches and pains that might be more than the normal wear and tear.

Second, Rizzo simply wasn't going to overwork him. He planned to cut off Strasburg's season at around 160 innings, a best-guess number based on spending hundreds of hours studying why young pitchers got hurt.

Rizzo kept collecting data, and nothing he saw convinced him he was doing the wrong thing. With the Nats good enough to win a World Series, this decision created a fury on the Nitwit Nation that is talk radio.

"I'm taking some shots," Rizzo said this week.

I reminded him that it was interesting that the criticism was coming, not from medical experts, but from former players and reporters and others who have virtually zero expertise in the area.

"Believe me," Rizzo said, "they don't know one-tenth of one percent of what we know."

Still, Rizzo was stung. He had trouble understanding why anyone would think that one season -- even a championship season, even a World Series season -- could be worth jeopardizing a career.

This decision might end up defining Mike Rizzo's career. When he signed Ross Detwiler, Jordan Zimmermann and Strasburg, he told their families that the Nationals would always do what is in their best interest.

Even Strasburg's dad had talked to him about the decision to end his son's season early. As for Strasburg, he never said a word.

But when Washington manager Davey Johnson told him last week that his season was coming to a close, Strasburg apparently responded angrily. When he was told this morning that his season over, he apparently cried.

That's what competitors do. They want to play and win and be part of a team. That's why they go out there on bad knees and aching arms and all the rest. They believe they're still good enough, that they can figure something out and help their team win.

Scouts call that mental approach "makeup," and they believe it separates the great ones from all the rest. Makeup defines the guys who get every ounce from their God-given talent.

In the past few weeks, I've thought a lot about Strasburg and how he's going to feel when the playoffs open and he's not on the active roster. He's surely going to feel a tidal wave of emotions -- all of them bad -- when his teammates begin their quest for a championship.

Strasburg knows the Nationals are doing what they believe is best for him, and on some level, he has to appreciate it.

Yet the criticism from people who say the Nats may never be in this position again is absolutely true. What if the Phillies bounce back next season? Does anyone think the Braves are going away?

Championship teams are fragile things. There's something magical about their resilience and resolve. The Nationals have a great organization, one built to last, but it's impossible to know if they'll ever be in this position again.

Still, it has been clear in recent weeks that Strasburg is getting worn down. In his last 10 starts, his ERA is 4.14.

Johnson pulled Strasburg after three rough innings against the Marlins on Friday night. He fell two outs short of 160 innings, even though the plan was to give him one more start.

Johnson announced Saturday morning that he was ending Strasburg's season, that he was taking no chances.

To do otherwise would have been unconscionable. These 159 1/3 innings are a terrific foundation on which to build the rest of his career.

Strasburg will come to Spring Training refreshed and strong, and most important of all, healthy. This season is just the beginning for Stephen Strasburg. The Nats weren't about to see it as anything else, and for that, they should be commended. This decision will forever be one of their finest hours.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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