Rounding Third: Cause for concern in D.C.?

It's been clear for a few weeks now that something hasn't been quite right with Washington Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg.

But in Monday's no-decision against Atlanta - his fifth straight start without a win by the way - he didn't look right. At times he appeared uncomfortable on the mound and was seen on television shaking his arm after a pitch.

Strasburg labored through six innings against the Braves and only allowed two runs and six hits, but matched a season-high by walking four batters in his team's 3-2 loss.

"His command was way off, so I knew something was off," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said.

Then after the game, Strasburg and Johnson both admitted to some tightness in his right forearm.

Wait, what?

Now there would be concern for any pitcher with those complaints, but coming from Strasburg, who has already endured Tommy John surgery, as well as a well- publicized innings limit a year ago, and the red flags really get raised.

Now Strasburg didn't seem too concerned after the game, stating that he'd still be able to make his next start. But, if you are the Nationals, how can you let him take the mound five days from now? He's the franchise.

"It's too early," Johnson said when asked about Strasburg's status. "I'm sure he's going to be examined every way you can look at him."

Strasburg, though, was quite adamant that he will be on the hill on regular rest.

"I'm not missing my next start," he said. "I'll tell you that right now."

Strasburg seems to have won this battle, as Washington general manager Mike Rizzo, who didn't seem too concerned, said that he should make his next start.

But, with as careful as they were with him last year, electing to not have him pitch down the stretch and into the postseason, wouldn't the slightest bit of discomfort prompt a skipped start at the least? Even if everything is as structurally fine as they say?

Now, of course, everyone is saying the tightness could be attributed to some electrical stimulation that Strasburg receives in the arm before his games, while others have pointed out that he often shakes his arm after pitches as almost a routine.

In fact, Strasburg seemed a little put off when asked about the arm shaking.

"Just trying to stay loose and stuff," Strasburg said.

The fact remains, though, he hasn't been the same pitcher he was on Opening Day when he was terrific against the Miami Marlins, scattering three hits over seven scoreless innings. Now he has been victimized by some poor run support of late and the 4.07 the four straight losses following his win was inflated by a six-run showing on April 19, so maybe this is much ado about nothing.

If it were me, though, I'd probably err on the side of caution.

You can't help but think of former Chicago Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood, who burst onto the scene in similar fashion, albeit with far less fanfare. Wood struck out 20 batters as a 20-year-old in 1998 five games into his career only to miss the entire 1999 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Wood had moments throughout his career, but never really became the dominant starter everyone had projected. In fact, his elbow problems eventually led him to the bullpen.

Who knows what kind of toll the close to 100 mph fastballs had on his arm at such a young age? For every doctor who tells you that was the cause of his problems, there are others who say that it didn't make a difference either way.

The same is said of the way the Nationals handled Strasburg a year ago. They imposed a strict innings limit in his first full year back from elbow surgery.

Was that the way to go?

Orthopedists have said that pitchers returning from the ligament replacement procedure sometime show signs of fatigue and that leads to their mechanics getting messed up. And it is that imbalance that puts more load on the arm, and, of course, leads to serious injury.

Essentially we will never know if that was the right way to go,

Let's hope everything is in fact fine because there are few pitchers who generate the kind of excitement that Strasburg does when he takes the hill.

But, geez, could you imagine the outcry right now in the District had the Nationals thrown their rules out the window and let Strasburg pitch in the playoffs last year and this tightness popped up?

There'd be a whole lot different reaction from Rizzo today, that's for sure.