Nats need to protect their investment

Anyone who’s been paying attention to the decline of Tim Lincecum’s fastball has already figured out the moral of the story: there’s nothing as fragile as a kid who can bring it in the high 90s.

It’s a lesson the Nationals should’ve learned by now, having seen Stephen Strasburg succumb to not just one, but two setbacks this summer. The first occurred while warming up in the bullpen on July 27, as he was unable to get his shoulder loose. Strasburg was sent to the disabled list, along with the Nationals’ prayers that his arm troubles were over..

But there’s been a recurrence — this one taking place Saturday against the Phillies. According to Jim Riggleman, Strasburg felt a “zinger” in his forearm flexor tendon.

The rookie left the game, his face a billboard of pain and disappointment. He’s since undergone an MRI, and even without announcing the results of the test, the Nationals once again placed Strasburg on the 15-day DL. This raises the most obvious question: What, exactly, does GM Mike Rizzo have to hear that wouldn’t shut Strasburg down for the rest of the year?

Washington has invested everything in Strasburg, and not just the $15 million he signed for. What’s at stake is the Nats’ future success in the NL East, their ability to draw fans, their credibility in the industry. It’s crazy to think Rizzo and Riggleman would even think of pushing Strasburg any further, even if the forearm injury were just a strain or a minor irritation.

Everyone was understandably relieved when Strasburg was able to play catch the next day, which probably meant more for the kid’s sanity than his arm. With any luck, the tests will come back clean and the Nats can close the books for 2010. Strasburg’s debut can be called a success and the franchise can look forward to many years of those brilliant 99-mph fastballs.

Really, there’s no reason for the Nats to expose Strasburg to any further risk, not with Strasburg having thrown a combined 123.1 innings in the minors and majors. He projected to a 160-inning limit, but the Nats should have seen enough. Certainly, as they slog along in last place, not even their young ace could’ve made the last five weeks of the season any more bearable.

Instead, senior officials need to confer with the medical staff to determine why Strasburg experienced problems on two separate occasions, and with two different areas of his pitching arm. Already there are theories that Strasburg’s mechanics are contributing to the problem.

So said White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, who might’ve been over-stepping his bounds critiquing another organization’s star, but nevertheless offered a disturbing explanation.

Speaking to MLB Network Radio on Sirius XM last month, Cooper said Strasburg uses the dreaded “inverted W” — holding the ball below his elbow instead of above it before reaching his release point.

The unorthodox delivery puts a strain on the inferior glenohumeral ligament, which explains why Strasburg experienced tightness in his shoulder while warming up.

Cooper thinks this is only the beginning, too. “I’m not wishing (Strasburg) bad,” he said at the time. “but he does something with his arm that is difficult, in my mind, to pitch a whole lot of innings on.”

Hopefully, Cooper is dead wrong and with proper rest, treatment and recovery this offseason, Strasburg returns stronger than ever in 2011. He was one of baseball’s gifts to America this summer, just as Lincecum seemed as magical as a unicorn in 2008. Fingers crossed for both young stars.

 

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Yankee summon rookie right-hander to the rotation

You don’t need any further proof of the Yankees’ anxiety about their starting rotation. The fact that they called up Ivan Nova, a 23-year-old right-hander from Class AAA, to face the Blue Jays on Monday tells you Javier Vazquez is no longer being counted on down the stretch.

Vazquez faced 18 batters in Saturday’s start against the Mariners, 12 of whom hit the ball hard. In three-plus innings, the right-hander allowed three home runs, including two to the first three hitters he faced.

Ichiro Suzuki led off with an HR off an 84-mph fastball. One out later, Russell Branyan hit the longest home run in the new Stadium, crushing an 87-mph cutter that Vazquez left in the middle of the plate.

Vazquez’s velocity never improved after that. He spent the next three innings between 86-88 mph, relying more and more on his secondary pitches to keep the Mariners off him.

Now we know why the Yankees worked so hard to complete the deal for Cliff Lee: they sensed Vazquez’s trend line would tank after the All-Star break. With Vazquez in full retreat, and A.J. Burnett on his way to a sub-.500 season, Andy Pettitte’s return from the disabled list becomes more important than ever.

Until then, the Bombers are relying on the ever-steady CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes and, with prayers being said fast and furious, the new kid from the minors.