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Making an ace disappear

With the All-Star Game now in the rearview mirror, the baseball season heads down the road toward the trade deadline, wild-card races, magic numbers and October surprises.

It will be nearly impossible to match last season's remarkable final day, when four dramatic games determined who would move on to the postseason.

But the Washington Nationals are sure going to give it a try -- in an unprecedented manner that will have the attention of the nation.

The Nationals were a big part of baseball's daily story rundown before the All-Star break, surprising many by dominating the National League East for much of the first three months of the season.

They will continue to be a big part of baseball's daily story -- until Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo pulls off a trick that would make Criss Angel jealous.

He's going to make Stephen Strasburg disappear.

Few people in baseball believe Rizzo can do it. Many believe it's an illusion.

Imagine benching Tom Brady or LeBron James as a precautionary measure before a playoff berth is locked up.

It may be the right thing to do. I believe it is. But that won't quiet the deafening roar that will accompany the move.

Shutting down Strasburg, in his first full season after Tommy John surgery, has been a hotly debated topic since spring training. When and how this will happen has been a little murky.

Earlier this year, the assumption was that the Nationals would follow the plan they had last year for Jordan Zimmermann, who was coming off his own Tommy John surgery. Zimmermann pitched 161 innings before he was shut down at the end of August, so everyone assumed 160 innings would be the magic number for Strasburg.

Rizzo came out and said the 160-inning figure was a media creation, and indeed, he never used that number. But he has made it clear that the franchise's priority is to protect the career of Strasburg, and that likely means he will disappear from the mound at some point this season.

Nationals manager Davey Johnson told reporters recently he was looking ahead at their September schedule and thinking about pitching options without Strasburg. A few days earlier, I was talking to several Cleveland Indians pitchers at Camden Yards who are convinced Strasburg will not be shut down and couldn't fathom how the Nationals could do so.

It's unfathomable because no one can remember a team shutting down its best pitcher in the middle of the pennant race because it fears an injury could happen in the future.

It will be the biggest story in baseball.

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