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YORK -- As the Nationals inch closer and closer to their first postseason berth since moving to Washington in 2005, and the second in franchise history, the question is not going away.
Are they really going to shut down Stephen Strasburg when he reaches that magical innings plateau that only general manager Mike Rizzo seems to have tucked away in the recesses of his ample baseball mind?
Veteran manager Davey Johnson bristled on Wednesday at the notion before Strasburg made the 20th start of his first full season against the Mets at Citi Field.
"I've been answering these questions since February," Johnson said.
Strasburg then went out and four-hit the Mets, allowing a single run, on an Ike Davis homer, and striking out 11 in Washington's 5-2 win, which completed a three-game sweep.
With Strasburg tossing an efficient 94 pitches through seven innings, even Johnson wistfully thought about leaving the big right-hander in the game. In a different season, Johnson admitted, Strasburg would have finished it.
"Oh, no doubt about it," said Johnson, who needed five relievers to secure the win once he removed Strasburg. "He had plenty left. This is a strange year. I'm going to protect him as much as I can so he can go as far [into the season] as he can. But when he was going like that, I was sure tempted to just ride this all the way out."
Strasburg finished the game at 117 1/3 innings pitched for the season. Johnson set the innings limit at 160 during Spring Training, and the questions about it are just going to keep coming until there is some sort of resolution.
At the time, no one projected the Nationals to win the National League East, and even Strasburg seems frustrated now that he's being held back.
Asked if he's looking forward to the day when there are no restrictions on his total innings and the length of his outings, Strasburg said, "Absolutely. I want to be a horse in the rotation so [Johnson] can ease up on the bullpen. I want to be the guy they can trust to go out there and do the job late in the game."
If it were up to him, he'd take on that pressure right now.
"Why not?" he said. "I want to stay out there."
But not now. Not this year. One thing is for certain, Johnson said -- and he was animated about it -- Strasburg will be shut down, and once he is there will be no reprises. They won't slow him down or skip a few starts in September to have him available for the postseason.
"If you're worried about the long-term health of a player, that's the worst thing you can do: shut him down and then rev him back up again," Johnson said before the game. "That's not going to happen."
Strasburg is still "a work in progress," Johnson said afterward. He missed the end of his rookie season and most of 2011 recovering from Tommy John surgery. With the Nationals seemingly a year away from being serious contenders, putting a cap on Strasburg's production this season seemed like a reasonable idea.
Then the Nationals started winning, and perceptions changed.
Strasburg was the top pick in the First-Year Player Draft a little more than three years ago, and the Nationals took their time integrating him into the Major Leagues. He played a little fall ball in 2009 and started the 2010 season at Double-A. After six effective starts there, he went to Triple-A Syracuse and made five more before his much-anticipated big league debut on June 8, 2010.
What followed were five wins, 92 strikeouts, a stint on the disabled list with an injured right shoulder and the blown-out elbow. He made 12 starts and threw 68 innings.
Apparently, there is still no rush. Strasburg just turned 24 this past Friday. His double-digit-strikeout game was his fourth of the season and seventh of his career. Keep in mind that this was only his 37th big league start.
"He's still learning to pitch in this league," Johnson said. "He's got such good stuff and he gets such great publicity, but he's still a work in progress. He's a perfectionist. It's really all about learning about yourself and not trying to be too perfect. And that's what he did today."
Johnson believes the Nationals have enough starting pitching to get by when the Strasburg plug is officially pulled. He mentioned John Lannan and Chien-Ming Wang as strong possibilities to take Strasburg's spot in the rotation. Lannan is toiling right now at Syracuse, and Wang is on the DL with a hip injury though he's currently making rehab starts.
It may also be a reason why Johnson lifted staff leader Gio Gonzalez with a four-run lead after throwing only 83 pitches on Tuesday night. He's trying to keep everyone fresh.
"I'm Captain Hook," Johnson said. "I probably hooked [Gonzalez] too early. These guys are precious to me. I'd rather keep them with a little something left in the tank than let them go all out."
Johnson didn't want to divulge the myriad mystical philosophical reasons behind his decisions. He certainly doesn't want to think about the entire Strasburg situation right now because, "It's not an issue for me. It's still seven or eight starts away right now."
But Johnson knows this better than anybody: Those starts will pass by faster than anyone thinks. And until then, the questions will remain.