WASHINGTON All the protective bubble wrap in the baseball world couldnt protect Stephen Strasburg from the devastating setback known as Tommy John surgery.
The Washington Nationals did all they could to slowly bring along their prized rookie and his invaluable right arm limiting his pitch count and removing him from games at the merest sign of trouble but that didnt stop the 22-year-old from tearing a ligament in his right elbow, bringing an end to a sensational rookie season.
The Nationals announced the sobering news Friday. They said Strasburg would travel Saturday to the West Coast for a second opinion, but everyone in the organization essentially has accepted the fact he will need the ligament replacement operation that requires 12 to 18 months of rehabilitation.
I dont know if we could have been any more conservative with him, Washington manager Jim Riggleman said.
Its a setback for Strasburg, of course, and for a baseball world that has spent the summer gasping in awe at his 100 mph fastball, bending curves and wicked batter-freezing changeups, but the biggest blow is to a Nationals franchise that had made the young phenom the centerpiece in their plans to climb out of perpetual last-place irrelevancy.
Theres no words that I can put in place here that would indicate we could possibly replace Stephen, Riggleman said. But we have to do it a different way, different names, different staff members who will go out there and fulfill the rotation until Stephen comes back.
Strasburg grimaced, grabbed and shook his wrist after throwing a 1-1 changeup to Domonic Brown in Philadelphia last Saturday. It turned out to be his last pitch of the year. The Nationals initially called the injury a strained flexor tendon in the forearm, but an MRI taken the next day raised enough questions for the Nationals to order a more extensive MRI in which dye was injected into the prized right arm.
Strasburg had the exam Thursday and was informed of the diagnosis later that night, but the Nationals chose not to announce the news until Friday because it would have upstaged the introductory news conference for 2010 No. 1 draft pick Bryce Harper.
Strasburg had to get through a few hours of anger, confusion and certainly a few more volatile emotions before he was ready to accept his latest challenge.
I want to be the best at everything, and right now I want to be the best at rehabbing and getting back out here, Strasburg said.
Strasburg is an intense, competitive man. He wants the ball. He was disappointed when he had to start the season in the minors and wasnt exactly thrilled with the restrictions the Nationals placed on him. Now he faces something hes never experienced in his baseball life: surgery on his arm, and the realistic prospect of not pitching again until 2012.
It didnt take a matter of minutes to sink in, he said. It took definitely a few hours. Ive got great support all around me, and they reminded me of everything I should be thankful for, and they put everything in perspective for me. Bottom line, this is a game. Im very blessed to play this game for a living. Its a minor setback, but in the grand scheme of things its just a blip on the radar screen.
Strasburg said he plans to write down on a piece of paper everything hes thinking and look at it again a year from now. He acknowledges while he is doing it he knows his mind might get a little jumbled as he goes through rehab and that he wants to remember everything he needs to focus on.
And as far as trying to figure out why this has happened to him? Hes done with that question.
If I keep looking for an explanation, its just going to eat at me, and Ive got to let it go, he said. Ive just got to move on, and thats what Im doing. Everything happens for a reason, and this is obviously going to be a test for me.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft, Strasburg signed a record $15.1 million contract a year ago. He struck out 14 batters in an amazing major league debut in June and quickly was drawing huge crowds everywhere. He went 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 68 innings with the Nationals, who had planned to shut him down once he reached about 105 innings.
The player was developed and cared for in the correct way, and things like this happen, general manager Mike Rizzo said. Pitchers break down, pitchers get hurt, and we certainly are not second-guessing ourselves. ... Frustrated? Yes. But second-guessing ourselves? No.