WASHINGTON -- Weeks ago, when Stephen Strasburg’s right hand first began to bother him, the season was a great curiosity. Its length changed everything. A truncated year consisting of just 60 games increased the weight on each day. It also raised questions of what all this -- a short ensemble in a hard time to crown a Major League Baseball champion -- was worth.
If things soured, would players continue to assume health risks the way they did to start? Would the entire situation be viewed as palatable? Is it worth pushing in a 60-game season when, presumably, normal times will return next year?
The Nationals and Strasburg ran headlong into these questions Saturday when he was scratched from what would be his first start of the season. Strasburg’s aching right hand needed multiple injections, the latest coming Friday, to try to heal a wrist impingement causing nerve problems, and, eventually, pain which prevented Strasburg from properly gripping the ball.
Players try to pitch and play through injuries. They argue a distinct difference between being in pain and being injured. Deciding when to stop is always a conundrum. In a short season, it becomes an even more complicated decision. Strasburg relented on Saturday, five days after his 32nd birthday. Length of contract and length of season were two reasons why.
“Yeah, I mean, to be frank, this season is kind of a mess to begin with, so I got to think big picture here and it's my career,” Strasburg said. “I know that in the long run it's important to try to make as many starts as you can, and by putting yourself in a compromising position now, I don't really know if it's the best way moving forward.”
Strasburg signed a seven-year, $245 million contract last offseason after opting out of his previous extension. He will be in Washington longer than any other player currently on the roster and in organization history. Last season’s ascension during the postseason prompted the raise. Preserving his 32-year-old body became paramount as soon as the deal was finished.
Which became a huge factor Saturday. Strasburg thinks his hand will calm down and return to normal. He thinks the problem can be resolved with rest. He thinks the rapid push to be ready for the season’s resumption contributed to his hand falling asleep in the middle of the night before betraying him on the mound.
Strasburg has learned, over time, that a problem in one location can lead to a broader problem in another. His arm is sound -- there was no dramatic announcement needed from the team trainer Paul Lessard to say “the ligament is good” the way he had to in 2016 when Strasburg had a strained flexor mass in his forearm. Strasburg says the rest of his body is in a good place, too.
“I do know that when things aren't right that it can lead to worse things,” Strasburg said. “I feel like that's something that does cross your mind. When you start trying to compensate mechanically to deal with something like this, it's really more harm than good that can come out of it."
So, he stopped Saturday. The Nationals aren’t sure when he will return. They need to decide quickly if day-to-day is the solution or if Strasburg’s 15-day injured list stint needs to begin. Missing two weeks in a 10-week season is an enormous blow. A misdiagnosis can extend the absence, making the delay even more problematic. A quarter of the season can be flushed in an instant.
But, as he said, this is not about just this 60-game season. In his case, it’s about the next six years, what will come when all the weirdness receives a course correction and title chases exist without funky setups. Chaos is on the active roster this season. When to continue wading through it is among the most challenging questions.
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