By JOSEPH WHITE
AP Sports Writer
WASHINGTON - Stephen Strasburg chuckled the moment the subject was broached. His response sounded as if it had been memorized off a note card.
"I have no clue how many innings I'm going to throw this year," he said. "I've answered that question multiple times, and nobody's said anything to me. I feel great right now."
The All-Star right-hander keeps hearing the question because he's in the middle of a real head-scratcher. If the Washington Nationals are still looking like World Series contenders in September, will they really follow through with the plan to shut down their ace a month early?
That's been the plan all along. It's the accepted medical norm for a pitcher coming back from Tommy John surgery. The plug will be pulled somewhere around 160 innings, just as it was last year for TJ-comeback teammate Jordan Zimmermann, whose season came to an abrupt halt when he hit 161 1-3 on Aug. 28.
But this year's Nationals hit the break at 15 games over .500 and with a four-game lead in the NL East - and Strasburg having thrown 100 innings, including a scoreless frame in Tuesday night's All-Star game.
Remember, no major league baseball team in Washington has made the postseason since 1933.
The Strasburg plan seemed OK back in spring training when optimistic scenarios had the club perhaps in the mix for the brand new second wild-card berth, but now they might literally have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give the city a championship.
"Last year we almost got to .500, and I felt for sure the progression here was we could come close to winning 90 games if everything fell into place and we started doing the things I knew we were capable of doing," manager Davey Johnson said. "We got us more arms during the offseason, and they really helped me with the bench. There are more weapons here now to where we have progressed more rapidly."
Regardless, the Nationals aren't budging on The Strasburg Plan - at least not so far. General manager Mike Rizzo figures this young roster is poised to be a contender for years to come, so there's no use risking a gifted talent like Strasburg by pushing him too hard with a freshly reconstructed elbow.
Johnson, who usually doesn't analyze the schedule far in advance, said he's already looked at the September slate to figure out how to approach it without his best pitcher.
"I was curious as to who we were playing and what our schedule was that last month - absent Strasburg," Johnson said. "What type of pitcher might fit in best for going against the clubs that we're going to play that month."
Strasburg threw 99 innings in 17 starts before the break, going 9-4 with a 2.82 ERA. At this pace, he would probably hit his innings limit around the first week of September.
Of course, it's not as if the Nationals would suddenly fall off the earth without him. They've had the top rotation in the majors for much of the season with fellow All-Star Gio Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler all sporting ERAs under 4.00.
"When you play this ballclub in a three-game series or even a four-game series," Colorado manager Jim Tracy said, "you've got your work cut out for you because they're going to send a pretty good starting pitcher to the mound every single day."
Chien-Ming Wang was supposed to be the fifth starter, but he's struggled and can't stay healthy, depriving the team of one reliable candidate to take Strasburg's spot when the time comes.
The Nationals, in fact, have made it a habit of winning without everyone on board. Catcher Wilson Ramos is out for the year. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, closer Drew Storen and outfielders Michael Morse and Jayson Werth are among those who have spent extended time either on the disabled list or hobbled with injuries.
"I don't know any club that could lose your 3-hole hitter, your 4-hole hitter, your 5-hitter, your starting catcher, your closer and done what we've accomplished in the first half," Johnson said. "And we're going to get healthier in the second half, so I think the pressure that we've had to deal with to this point has been a lot more than is going to be coming in the second half.
"We've weathered a pretty rough storm," the manager said, "so the schedule and who we play in the second half doesn't look that daunting to me. There were times early on when they were dropping like flies. It was looking pretty bleak, but we managed to get through it, so I'm looking at it more as now the fun begins. We'll see how good we are. I'm much more comfortable and much more relaxed, believe it or not, coming into the second half."
Even if he doesn't have Strasburg all the way to the end. --- Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)