Tuesday, July 27, 2010 7:41pmUpdated at 11:03pm
By Mark Zuckerman
Stephen Strasburg was a surprise, last-minute scratch from Tuesday nights game against the Atlanta Braves after complaining of a stiff shoulder while warming up in the Washington Nationals bullpen.
General manager Mike Rizzo, after being informed by coaches and trainers of Strasburg's situation, made the decision to scratch the rookie right-hander and start long reliever Miguel Batista instead in what he termed a "precautionary" move. Batista wound up tossing five scoreless innings and led the Nationals to a 3-0 victory.
"Stephen was having trouble getting loose in the bullpen, so I pulled the plug on it," Rizzo said in an impromptu news conference outside the Nationals Park press box during the first inning. "Precautionary move. Again, erring on the side of caution. I just didn't want him going out there when he was struggling to get loose in the bullpen pregame."
Strasburg quickly departed the ballpark to be examined by team doctor Wiemi Douoguih. An MRI revealed shoulder inflammation but no structural damage to the rotator cuff or labrum, according to Rizzo.
The team won't determine Strasburg's next step until they see how he responds to anti-inflammatory medication and treatment, so no decision has been made when (or if) he'll make his next start.
"I want to see where he's at tomorrow," Rizzo said. "We're not going to eliminate anything. But we're going to be cautious with him."
Since he was drafted No. 1 in the country last summer, Strasburg has been treated with extreme caution and had not previously dealt with any kind of arm issues as a professional. He was scratched from two Arizona Fall League starts, one because of a strained neck and the other because of a strained knee. Rizzo did say Strasburg experienced some shoulder stiffness while in college.
The Nationals have made a point not to let Strasburg cross the 100-pitch plateau all season, both in the minors and the majors, and have said they will stick to a strict limit of 160 innings before shutting him down in either late-August or early-September.
Few among the sellout crowd of 40,043 at Nationals Park Tuesday night had an inkling of what was going on. Strasburg did some initial stretching and long-tossing in right field about 25 minutes before gametime, then moved to the bullpen for his standard warm-up. After only a handful of pitches, pitching coach Steve McCatty asked his young hurler how he felt.
Strasburg replied: "I feel stiff. My shoulder's stiff."
The pitcher tried to insist he could work his way through it and start the game, but McCatty overruled him and was quickly backed up by Rizzo and manager Jim Riggleman.
"He asked me and I said, 'No, we're not going to take a chance,'" McCatty said. "There's no reason to. ... I can't say I saw anything mechanically wrong. I just asked him and he told me the truth, which I appreciate him doing."
Needing an emergency starter only 15 minutes before first pitch, Riggleman summoned Batista, who was still in the clubhouse at the time. At first, the 39-year-old long reliever thought his manager was joking. Once he realized this was serious, he quickly made his way to the bullpen and warmed up.
"My first reaction was to be worried about Strasburg. He's the future of this organization," Batista said. "My mind was like: 'Wow. What's going on?' But after they told us it was just a stiff shoulder, that takes a lot of worries out of your mind."
When Batista took the mound at 7:06 p.m. and was announced as the starting pitcher, many in attendance booed.
"Imagine, if you go there to see Miss Universe and you end up having Miss Iowa, you might get those kind of boos," Batista said. "But it's OK. They had to understand that as an organization we have to make sure the kid is fine."
By the time he walked off the mound having tossed five scoreless innings, Batista was the recipient of a standing ovation.
"Miguel's a pro," Riggleman said. "He's done a little bit of everything for us this year. He's gotten a save. He's now started a game. He's pitched in the middle. He's eaten up innings. He's gotten big outs. He's thrown back-to-back days. He's just been a staff-saver for us, and tonight he was a lot more than that. He was outstanding."
Mark Zuckerman covered the Nationals for The Washington Times from 2005-09. In addition to regular work this season for CSNwashington.com, he also covers the team at www.natsinsider.com. Email Mark at email@example.com.