“When you go halfway, the rule of thumb is: hard-hit ball, turn two,” Johnson said.
Xavier Paul rolled Strasburg’s 101st pitch, a 2-0 fastball, to the right side. Espinosa fired home.
“It was just my misunderstanding of why we were playing halfway,” Espinosa said afterward. “I thought the reason we were playing halfway was to try to cut that run.”
With Robinson sprinting on contact, Espinosa’s throw had to be perfect. It carried catcher Suzuki’s mitt to the right side of home plate, allowing Robinson to slide home with the go-ahead run.
Teammates covered for Espinosa. Suzuki insisted he could have been better positioned to make a tag. Desmond believed he could have helped Espinosa make the correct play.
“I probably should have been saying, ‘Two! Two! Two!,’ getting his attention,” Desmond said. “As infielders, when we’re out there, we see our pitcher battling, you want to try to stop all runs at all costs.
“They got a little bit of a slow track there on the grass. It’s cut a little longer than ours. I think the ball took a little bit longer to get to Espinosa. At [Nationals Park], he gets that guy out at home 10 times out of 10. Probably a little bit my fault, not letting him know we should turn two.”
Strasburg kept firing. He retired Joey Votto on seven pitches, raising his count to 108. Johnson still stuck with him. Brandon Phillips fought through a six-pitch at-bat and ripped a 2-2 change-up through the left side of the infield. Choo scored, the Reds took a 5-3 lead and, after throwing 114 pitches, Strasburg jogged off the mound.
“There was something going on,” Strasburg said. “When I’m out of the stretch, they seemed to take better swings. I just got to look at the video and see what I’m doing out there.”
Was he tipping pitches, perhaps?
“I’m just going to look at some video and see what happens.”
From the start, the Reds made life difficult for Strasburg. In the first inning, Paul dribbled a hit off Strasburg’s glove, Votto drew a five-pitch walk and Ryan Zimmerman dived to knock down Phillips’s blistering grounder but couldn’t corral it. Suddenly, without a ball leaving the infield, the Reds had loaded the bases. Jay Bruce poked a 2-2 curveball to the gap in left-center field, a two-run double. Todd Frazier’s RBI groundout made it 3-0 after the first.
“I thought he threw the ball good,” Suzuki said. “He gets a little frustrated, you know, giving up a lot of soft contact. Spins, bounces, some hits, broken bat stuff didn’t real go our way today. All he can do is make quality pitches and create soft contact early in the count. And that’s what he did.”
Strasburg may have another chance to navigate the Reds’ ferocious lineup, and Johnson assuredly will continue to stretch his limits. He could not lift the Nationals on Sunday. He is still their horse.