Injury Ends Opening Season For Nats Pitcher

Washington Nationals pitching phenom Steven Strasburg is out for the season and could need reconstructive surgery for a torn ligament in his arm. As NPR's Mike Pesca reports, the injury is raising questions about the Nats' decision to bring the much-hyped 21-year-old rookie to the majors so soon.

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The most promising young talent to play major league ball in over a decade needs surgery. Pitchers get hurt all the time in baseball, but Steven Strasburg's torn elbow ligament is an exceptionally tough injury, and not just for him.

The city of Washington, D.C., and its luckless Nationals had an incredible amount of hope tied up in this 22-year-old right-hander. He was the number one overall pick in the 2009 draft. Now, he's on the disabled list probably for a very long time.

Here's NPR's Mike Pesca.

MIKE PESCA: Great baseball minds know you don't take a big lead off Andy Pettitte, you play David Ortiz to pull, and you don't get into a dance-off with the Philly fanatic.

But the one piece of baseball information that eludes everyone is how to keep a pitcher healthy. A quarter of a billion dollars worth of pitching talent was lost to injury in 2008 in baseball. And in most cases, the injuries were unpredictable and seemingly unavoidable.

No one wanted to protect their investment more than the Washington Nationals: $15 million to their young pitcher Steven Strasburg, and now he's out for the season, probably out for next season, too.

Will Carroll writes the Under the Knife column for Baseball Prospectus. He says the Nats really didn't do anything wrong.

Mr. WILL CARROLL (Columnist, Baseball Prospectus): I mean, they did everything but wrap him in bubble wrap.

PESCA: You'd think, as author of a book called "Saving the Pitcher: Preventing Injuries in Modern Baseball," Will Carroll might have some insights on how to prevent injuries. But Carroll says bad luck, or what we understand as luck, is mostly to blame.

Mr. CARROLL: The problem is that we don't know what kind of forces Steven Strasburg or any other pitcher is putting on his arm with every single pitch.

PESCA: There's a burgeoning field of biomechanical analysis that can offer some insight as to what pitching motions may cause trouble. But this analysis, which is relatively inexpensive, hasn't really caught on inside baseball.

The Nationals did what most teams these days try to do to protect their young arms, they limit the number of pitches thrown. The Nats started Strasburg off in AA, where the phemon was, predictably, phenomenal. They moved him up to AAA, where he was statistically even better.

And his major league debut was unquestionably the greatest moment in Washington Nationals history, as their TV broadcast, MASN, documented Strasburg 14 strikeouts.

(Soundbite of baseball game)

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Announcer: They don't need a seventh-inning stretch. They've been on their feet almost every top of the inning...

PESCA: The 15 million spent to sign Strasburg seemed warranted; his future seemed limitless. And it still may be. But that future most likely will not include any games this year or next because recovery from Tommy John surgery takes 12 to 18 months.

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said on a conference call that the 22-year-old pitcher knows what he's facing.

Mr. MIKE RIZZO (General Manager, Washington Nationals): He's determined to get after this, get the surgery done and begin the process of rehabilitation. You know, he's been informed of what the process is going to entail, and he's ready to attack it.

PESCA: The good news, or less bad news, is that with major leaguers, Tommy John surgery has a better-than-90-percent success rate. Three of the National League pitchers on this year's All-Star Game have rebounded from the injury. And, of course, Tommy John himself, went under the knife as a trailblazer, rehabbed for a year and pitched well for another 13 seasons.

But in Washington, it was clear that more than an ulnar collateral ligament was torn. The team, in its sixth year of existence, has never had a winning record and is on its way to another last place finish. As one noted critic of Washington once asked: How's that hopey-changy thing workin' out for 'ya? The answer is: Wait until the year after next year.

Mike Pesca, NPR News.

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