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Strasburg facing shutdown A plan to limit their young star to 160 innings looms over Nationals

After Stephen Strasburg lit up the Red Sox for 13 strikeouts last Friday in Fenway Park, always-loquacious Boston manager Bobby Valentine waxed poetic on what once again looks like one of the game's golden arms.

"He's like looking at a rainbow," Valentine said. "You don't miss it. It's a beautiful sight."

There was another scenic view of Strasburg on Wednesday afternoon in Rogers Centre. He became the first major leaguer to 100 strikeouts this season by fanning eight in six innings as the red-hot Washingtion Nationals completed a sweep of the bedraggled Blue Jays with a 6-2 win.

Strasburg went six innings before leaving due to a small cut on his middle finger suffered when he was trying to trim a nail in the dugout. He allowed two runs on five hits, struck out eight and walked one. He's 8-1 with a 2.45 ERA for the season and leads the majors in strikeouts and strikeouts per nine innings (12.9), a rate that would place him third all-time for an entire season. He's got 100 strikeouts and 20 walks in 77 innings while allowing just 55 hits. There are absolutely no issues remaining from the Tommy John surgery he had last year.

The Nationals ripped off their first 6-0 road trip since 1988, when they were still in Montreal, and are 38-23 with the second-best record in baseball. Almost out of nowhere, they're suddenly the favorite in the National League East.

It's heady stuff for a franchise that has not made the postseason since the Expos did in ‘81. But just as LeBron James made a big one on the road from Cleveland to Miami and the NBA finals, the Nationals have a major issue, their version of The Decision, hanging over their season.

The plan all along this year was to limit Strasburg to about 160 innings and then shut him down, as part of the long-term rehab of his elbow. The Nationals did the same thing last year with Jordan Zimmerman, who threw 161 innings and didn't pitch after the last week of August.

But no one figured Strasburg would be this good coming off surgery, or Bryce Harper would play like the best teenager since, oh, Mel Ott. They can win this year. So are they really going to go through September – and October – without Strasburg?

He's already at 77 innings through just 61 games of the season. And he knows what's going on. A normal talk about another quality start turned into a lowered head when I asked him after Wednesday's game how much thought he's given to the possibility of taking a seat.

"I try not to think about it but with the direction that we're going and everything, it makes it even harder to not think about it," Strasburg said. "I can't control that. Hopefully things can change and we get to where we want to be and somehow I'm part of it still, but I can't really worry about it right now because we have a long way to go."

Does that mean he's going to broach the subject with team officials about a loosening of the rules?

"I can't really speak for that right now," Strasburg said. "We've still got a lot of games left and a lot can happen so that's what I'm focusing on."

Still, it doesn't sound as if the rules have any flexibility. Nats General Manager Mike Rizzo spoke with the New York Post on Wednesday in what he said would be his last interview on the Strasburg subject.

"It is well-chronicled. It is not changing," Rizzo said. "To ask [Strasburg] to throw 200 innings now, that is not a prudent way to do business with a 23-year-old, top-of-the-rotation starter we plan to have for a long time. [Shutting him down] is going to be painful, and we are going to take grief. But I will not shy away from it. I am the caretaker of this organization for the long haul. The situation hasn't changed, and it won't matter where we are in the standings."

Hmmm. I wonder how Nationals season ticket-holders feel about that. If this team gets to October in the hunt, it may be the first of many years of being in contention. But you never know. Nobody has ever had this kind of dilemma.

Strasburg made his 30th career start Wednesday. His career record is 14-5 and the Nats are 21-9 in games he's started. He's just the sixth pitcher since 1900 with 200 strikeouts in his first 30 starts. The Elias Sports Bureau said he's the first Washington pitcher to get to 100 before anybody else since Hall of Famer Walter Johnson of the Senators did it all the way back in 1919.

Strasburg said he struggled to find his legs for the 12:35 p.m. start in the early innings, when his fastball topped at 95. He was going 96-97 consistently in his final three frames. Two years ago, Strasburg hit 99 or higher 51 times once he got called up, just as he did in his final Triple-A appearance for Syracuse on that memorable Thursday afternoon in Buffalo.

He's not doing that anymore but there's no hint of any postsurgery issues. It's simply a maturation process where he realizes consistent 98-100 isn't needed to get hitters out and won't be a help to any sort of long career.

"He's not just a hard thrower," said manager Davey Johnson. "He's got a great curveball and a great change-up. It's not an easy picnic up there."

Strasburg's curveball is becoming an even more dominant weapon after a skull session with Nationals center fielder and former curveball starter extraordinaire Rick Ankiel. In the bottom of the second, Strasburg opened Yunel Escobar with a knee-buckling 79-mph curveball. Escobar had no shot. Stood there and watched.

The next three pitches were 96, 95 and 95 as Escobar barely fouled off the first two and then pushed a lazy fly ball to right field.

Jose Bautista touched Strasburg for a solo homer in the third on an 89-mph change-up but Strasburg gave up only one one more hit the rest of the way. He was pulled after 89 pitches and showed no ill effects of the 119-pitch outing in Boston that was his career high.

Johnson admitted after that game he didn't want to "fight Stras" by pulling him after the Red Sox loaded the bases.

There was some of that Wednesday as Johnson admitted Strasburg "was fighting tooth and nail not to come out" because of the nail problem. Just imagine what the conversation might be like in another few weeks.

"Honestly, I want to go out there and see it through the whole way," Strasburg said. "It's tough. Obviously you'll have little things that go on throughout the year. It's a tough call for him but you can't really worry about it now."

email: mharrington@buffnews.com