Strasburg's elbow gives in despite bubble wrap

The Washington Nationals did all they could to protect their prized rookie and his right arm but a ligament tear was inevitable.

WASHINGTON // All the protective bubble wrap in the baseball world could not protect Stephen Strasburg from the devastating setback known as Tommy John surgery. The Washington Nationals did all they could to slowly bring along their prized rookie and his invaluable right arm, limiting his pitches and removing him from games at the slightest sign of trouble. But that did not stop the 22-year-old pitcher from tearing a ligament in his right elbow, bringing an end to a sensational rookie season.

The Nationals announced the sobering news on Friday. They said Strasburg would travel yesterday to the West Coast for a second opinion, but the organisation has accepted the fact that he will need the ligament replacement operation that requires 12 to 18 months of rehabilitation. "I don't know if we could have been any more conservative with him," said Jim Riggleman, the Washington manager. It is a setback for Strasburg, of course, and for a baseball world that spent the summer gasping in awe at his 100mph fastball, bending curves and wicked, batter-freezing change-ups, but the biggest blow is to a Nationals franchise that had made the young star the centrepiece in their plans to climb out of perpetual last-place irrelevancy.

"There's no words that I can put in place here that would indicate we could possibly replace Stephen," Riggleman said. "But we have to do it a different way, different names, different staff members who will go out there and fulfil the rotation until Stephen comes back." Strasburg grimaced, grabbed and shook his wrist after throwing a 1-1 change-up to Domonic Brown in Philadelphia on August 21. It turned out to be his last pitch of the year. The Nationals initially called the injury a strained flexor tendon in the forearm, but an MRI taken last Sunday raised enough questions for the Nationals to order a more extensive MRI in which dye was injected into the pitcher's right arm.

Strasburg had the exam on Thursday and was informed of the diagnosis later that night, but the Nationals chose not to announce the news immediately because it would have upstaged the news conference for Bryce Harper, the club's 2010 No 1 draft pick. Strasburg had to get through a few hours of anger, confusion and certainly a few more volatile emotions before he was ready to accept his latest challenge.

"I want to be the best at everything," Strasburg said, "and right now I want to be the best at rehabbing and getting back out here." Strasburg is an intense, competitive man. He wants to pitch. He was disappointed when he had to start the season in the minors and was not exactly thrilled with the restrictions the Nationals had placed on him. Now he faces something he has never experienced in his baseball life: surgery on his arm, and the prospect of not pitching again until 2012.

"I didn't take a matter of minutes" to sink in, he said. "I took definitely a few hours. I've got great support all around me, and they reminded me of everything I should be thankful for, and they put everything in perspective for me. "Bottom line, this is a game. I'm very blessed to play this game for a living. It's a minor setback, but in the grand scheme of things it's just a blip on the radar."

* Associated Press