As if the Nationals didn't already face a steep enough climb to make the playoffs, it appears they'll have to continue their effort without their ace, at least for the next couple of days. Stephen Strasburg has been scratched from his second start in a row due to forearm tightness. While the team hasn't gone so far as to shut him down for the season yet, they continue to treat him with particular caution, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he doesn't make another start this year.
Strasburg hadn't missed a start since his early-June stint on the disabled list due to a strained latissimus dorsi until Washington first scratched him last Friday. The day prior, he had felt forearm tightness while playing catch and experimenting with new grips on a pitch. He had no problems in Monday's bullpen session, which put him back on track to start on Thursday, and at the time, the conclusion was that the pitcher had been dealing with a cramp caused by trying to stretch too aggressively.
On Wednesday, Strasburg again felt discomfort, which manager Davey Johnson described as "a strong cramp." Again, Johnson scuttled the start, telling reporters, "In my book, I don’t want to have anything bothering you the day before you pitch.” The plan now is for Gio Gonzalez to start tonight, Jordan Zimmermann to go on Friday and Strasburg to possibly pitch on Saturday. Strasburg described the situation to the Washington Post's James Wagner:
"To be honest, I wish I could figure out what it is, what the reason is for it,” Strasburg said. “I felt it just warming up today. I came in and literally just moved my hand around a little bit, just did like some squeezing exercises, and it went away. I went out and threw, felt great. I don’t know what’s going on, but I think it works better for the club to … give it a couple extra days, let Gio and Jordan go ahead and get it done and get after it on Saturday… I think it would put us in a bind if I went out there and felt it. We’d definitely be down some pitchers.”
Strasburg underwent an MRI and a full exam from team doctors after last week's scratch, and his arm has been declared structurally sound. That should come as a relief, given that forerarm tightness is generally associated with problems with the ulnar collateral ligament, the one whose damage can lead to Tommy John surgery. Strasburg underwent the surgery in late 2010, of course, and his handling since then -- centering around last season's September shutdown -- drew a firestorm of criticism and continues to draw scrutiny.
While the Nationals have underachieved on the heels of last year's 98 wins and NL East title, the 25-year-old righty isn't at fault for the hole in which they find themselves. Thanks to a meager 3.2 runs per game of offensive support, the third-worst rate in the league among ERA qualifiers, his won-loss record of 7-9 doesn't look like much, but in 28 starts totaling 170 1/3 innings, he's posted a 2.96 ERA (seventh in the league) with 9.6 strikeouts per nine (fourth). He's had three starts curtailed at two innings or less, one leading to his DL stint, another due to a lengthy rain delay and a third due to an ejection, but aside from those he has averaged 6.6 innings per start and delivered a quality start 64 percent of the time. His ERAs in the first and second half are almost identical (2.99 and 2.92, respectively), but thanks to improved strikeout and walk rates, his FIP has fallen from 3.51 in the first half to 2.96 in the second.
With Taylor Jordan shut down for the year due to an innings limit and Ross Detwiler slow to return from a herniated disc, swingmen Ross Ohlendorf and Tanner Roark have both been pressed into duty as starters. The former has delivered a 4.61 ERA in five starts since taking over for Jordan in late August, while the latter, a 26-year-old rookie, has come out of nowhere to allow just two runs in three turns totaling 19 innings.
Washington has gone 7-1 in those starts, part of a tear that's seen the team go an MLB-best 29-15 since the beginning of August. Alas, the Nats lost Ohlendorf's start against the Braves on Wednesday night, falling to 81-71 and losing ground to the Reds (87-66) who won in 13 innings and are now 5 1/2 games ahead of them in the wild-card race. That was a crushing blow according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds; they dropped from having a 3.3 percent chance of making the playoffs to 1.0 percent in one day. If Washington goes 10-0 the rest of the way, the Reds could still hold on by going 5-5, and the Pirates (87-65, half a game ahead of Cincinnati after losing on Wednesday) only need to go 5-6. In other words, the Nationals' elimination number — the combination of their losses and wins by the next team above them in the standings — is five. Thus if the Nats don't win on Thursday and Friday and either the Reds or Pirates take the first two games of their head-to-head series in Pittsburgh, Strasburg's start on Saturday -- assuming he's declared good to go the day before -- could be their last gasp. They've consistently shown a willingness to put his long-term welfare ahead of the short-term fate of the team, so don't be surprised if they skip him again under such desperate circumstances.