Stephen Strasburg takes a step off the mound to gather his thoughts following… (Marc Serota/Getty Images )
MIAMI — These Washington Nationals have avoided losing streaks of any considerable length thanks to the pitching prowess of Stephen Strasburg. Eight times this season, more than any other Nationals starter, he has taken the mound following a loss and produced a win. Four of those victories came after losing streaks of three games or more.
There may have been no better time to send Strasburg to the mound than Tuesday night. The Nationals were riding a frustrating losing streak and the right-hander had dominated the Miami Marlins unlike any other division opponent. Instead, the Nationals’ skid was extended to five games, tying their longest of the season, with a 9-0 loss. Strasburg was uneven, unfocused and battered around. White flags of surrender felt necessary by the third inning.
Strasburg surrendered nine hits, tied for most in his career; seven runs, five of them earned; and only three strikeouts over five agonizing innings. His command was off. His body language was poor. He allowed two stolen bases out of lack of attention to base runners.
The Nationals still held a four-game lead over the Atlanta Braves in the National League East following the Braves’ 2-0 victory in San Diego. The losing streak remains relatively small. But the fact that this slump is happening this deep into the season magnifies the situation.
“It always is late, when you’re in the running, when you’re playing for something,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “It’s definitely made a bigger deal later in the year.”
Added Manager Davey Johnson: “We’ve been a little banged up and we faced some hot clubs. I won’t worry about it. It’s just one ballgame. We got tomorrow.”
Strasburg entered Tuesday’s start with a streak of 27 scoreless innings against the Marlins, including three dazzling starts this season. But the unraveling began by the second batter of the game. Strasburg gave up a home run to Justin Ruggiano, a loud smack of a shot to left-center field that was a sign of the things to come.
The Marlins drilled Strasburg for two runs in the first and three runs in the third. Though early, the 5-0 deficit felt almost insurmountable with a lost Strasburg on the mound and Marlins starter Ricky Nolasco fooling Nationals hitters. When Strasburg walked off the mound for the night, his team trailed 7-0.
In that disastrous third inning, Strasburg allowed a leadoff single to Bryan Petersen and walked Ruggiano. With one out, second baseman Danny Espinosa fumbled a sharp grounder to his left, extending the inning and forcing an already struggling Strasburg to work more. Nationals coaches have reminded Strasburg to keep an eye on runners on base and to vary his times to the plate, but he didn’t, and Petersen and a slow Carlos Lee nabbed bases on him.
“That just shook him up a little bit,” Johnson said. “But he’s a young pitcher, that’s what you gotta go through. You gotta deal with that and he’ll be fine.”
Marlins hitters pounced on Strasburg’s fastballs inside early, pushing them the other way for hits. And Strasburg struggled to adjust, instead, continuing with that plan. Even his 97-mph fastball looked vulnerable.
“I just didn’t throw too many first-pitch strikes and obviously they had a little bit different approach this time and I didn’t make the adjustment,” he said. “I just kept on trying to do the same thing and they were cheating, cheating and they got me. Learn from it and just got to remember to trust my stuff and next time out I’ve got to go out there and really just read what I see and pitch to it.”
Strasburg had produced four brilliant starts this month despite the early end to his season looming a few weeks away because of his surgically repaired elbow. On Tuesday, he looked tired, but Johnson said it would not alter the Nationals’ plan with Strasburg.
The Nationals had hammered Nolasco this season, beating him twice entering Tuesday and battering him for 10 runs over 11 1/3 innings. He carried a 5.07 ERA into the game and the Nationals’ lineup, with the return of Ian Desmond and Michael Morse from injuries, was likely frothing at the mouth.
But it was as if the pitchers’ roles were reversed. Nolasco carried a no-hitter late into the fifth inning. The only base runners until then were Jayson Werth, who reached on an error in the first, and Espinosa, who darted to first safely following a wild pitch on a strikeout in the fifth. Catcher Kurt Suzuki, hitting .192, flared a single to right field for the Nationals’ first hit. Chad Tracy, pinch-hitting in the ninth, notched the only extra-base hit with a double.
The Nationals managed consecutive singles by Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman with one out in the sixth. But the farthest any Nationals base runner got was Werth, who reached third with two outs in the first inning. Nolasco’s fastball and slider kept Nationals hitters off balance and hitting the ball into the dirt for groundouts. The lineup was healthy and complete for the first time in six days, but it wasn’t at all in sync.
Morse and Desmond combined to go 0 for 7. Between Werth, Harper and Zimmerman, the Nationals’ top three hitters in the lineup, there were only two hits in 12 at-bats. Suzuki was the only National with multiple hits.
The Nationals put two runners on base in the ninth inning but by then the outcome was all but certain. A perfect opportunity presented itself with Strasburg on the mound but it all fell apart.