WASHINGTON – All the protective bubble wrap in the baseball world couldn't 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 didn't 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 has essentially accepted the fact that he will need the ligament replacement operation that requires 12 to 18 months of rehabilitation.
"I don't know if we could have been any more conservative with him," Washington manager Jim Riggleman said.
It's 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.
"There's 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 Sunday 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 on Thursday and was informed of the diagnosis later that night, but the Nationals chose not to announce the news until 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," Strasburg said, "and right now I want to be the best at rehabbing and getting back out here."
Strasburg is an intense, competitive man. He wants the ball. He was disappointed when he had to start the season in the minors and wasn't exactly thrilled with the restrictions the Nationals have placed on him. Now he faces something he's never experienced in his baseball life: surgery on his arm, and the realistic prospect of not pitching again until 2012.
"I didn't take a matter of minutes" to sink in, he said. "I took definitely a few hours. I've 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. I'm very blessed to play this game for a living. It's a minor setback, but in the grand scheme of things it's just a blip on the radar screen."
Strasburg said that he plans to write down on a piece of paper everything he's thinking and look at it again a year from now. He's said he's 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? He's done with that question.
"If I keep looking for an explanation, it's just going to eat at me, and I've got to let it go," he said. "I've just got to move on, and that's what I'm 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 was quickly 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."