Saturday, August 21, 2010 8:57 p.m., Updated at 10:45 p.m., Updated at 12:20 a.m.
By Mark Zuckerman
PHILADELPHIA Stephen Strasburg was dealing, and the Phillies had no answer for him.
When Domonic Brown stepped to the plate in the bottom of the fifth Saturday night, Strasburg was the king of Citizens Bank Park. The young Nationals hurler was facing the stiffest challenge of his brief career and was making mincemeat of Philadelphia's potent lineup.
And then Strasburg uncorked a 90 mph changeup to Brown, winced, shook his right arm and motioned to the Washington dugout. In that moment, the rookie's best outing since his big-league debut 2 12 months ago had turned into his latest injury scare.
Pulled from the game by manager Jim Riggleman against his wishes, Strasburg was later diagnosed with a strained flexor tendon in his right forearm. He'll return to Washington Sunday to undergo an MRI, and the club won't make any decisions about the next step until the results of that test are in.
Needless to say, this figured to be a restless night for team executives, coaches, players and fans who are hoping the injury proves to be nothing serious but fearing the worst.
"You're always concerned when your pitcher leaves in the middle of a game," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "But we're going to see what the MRI says and we'll act accordingly."
Given how cautious the Nationals have been with their 15.1 million flamethrower from the day he was drafted, few would be surprised if he doesn't return to a big-league mound this season. Then again, the shoulder tightness that prevented Strasburg from making a June 27 start at Nationals Park and led to immediate panic proved to be only a minor bump in the road. Strasburg went on the disabled list but returned two weeks later and hasn't reported any shoulder troubles since.
"Certainly with Stephen, we're going to be careful," Riggleman said. "We just hope for the best. He'll get looked at tomorrow, and hopefully we get good news."
Strasburg departed the ballpark before reporters were let in following the Nationals' 8-1 victory.
Before the surprisingly abrupt conclusion to his start after only 56 pitches, Strasburg had been putting together his best performance in months. Unfazed by the Phillies or their unwelcoming fans, he had allowed only one run on two hits, striking out six without issuing a walk.
Mixing in his trademark fastball with devastating offspeed pitches, Strasburg notched four strikeouts on curveballs, two more on changeups and looked poised to reach the seventh inning for the first time since June 28 in Atlanta.
"That tells you how good he is," catcher Ivan Rodriguez said. "When you have three pitches that are very good, you can strike out guys. And he did it tonight."
Then came the fateful pitch to Brown in the bottom of the fifth.
Strasburg winced as he threw the changeup, looked down at his right arm and then shook it around for a moment. After a few seconds, Rodriguez joined him at the mound, followed immediately by Riggleman, pitching coach Steve McCatty and trainer Lee Kuntz.
Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino said plate umpire Brian O'Nora told him he "heard something pop." Brown, who was in the batter's box and thus a couple of feet closer to Strasburg than O'Nora, said he heard nothing.
Strasburg tried to plead with Riggleman to remain in the game, but the manager wasted little time pulling his starter, who trudged off the field with a look of disgust on his face.
"He wanted to stay in the game," said Riggleman, who added he would have pulled anyone else on his staff other than veterans Livan Hernandez or Miguel Batista. "After the initial feeling that he felt, by the time we got out there, he said, 'I feel good. I don't even feel anything. Let me keep pitching.' We just didn't choose to do that."
Sitting in the Nationals' bullpen beyond the center field fence, long reliever Craig Stammen noticed Strasburg's reaction to his final pitch and immediately wondered if he was about to be summoned into the game. The converted starter did enter and was given as much time as he needed to warm up under the unusual circumstances.
"Surprisingly, it wasn't as awkward as I thought it might be," Stammen said. "It took me back to high school days. That's how we used to warm up before games: We'd throw on the game mound while the team was taking infield. I kind of had a little chuckle about that. But it is what it is. You've got to do your job, and that's my job."
Stammen and bullpen mates Doug Slaten, Tyler Clippard and Batista wound up doing an exceptional job finishing what Strasburg started. That quartet combined to toss 4 23 scoreless innings of relief and preserve the Nationals' 8-1 victory.
In many ways, this might have been Washington's best all-around performance of the season.
Unfortunately, it will be remembered more for one Strasburg changeup in the fifth inning that left the entire Nationals organization and its fans anxiously waiting for a diagnosis, one that could either extend the rookie's magical season or bring it to a screeching halt.
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.