The Washington Nationals stretched the outer bound of how poorly they could support Stephen Strasburg on Tuesday night, an effort that fell somewhere between cartoonish and criminal. As Strasburg overwhelmed the Milwaukee Brewers for seven innings, his offense scored no runs. After Strasburg left, the Brewers promptly scored four as Drew Storen imploded and Bryce Harper dropped a fly ball. At least nobody tripped Strasburg in the dugout or spiked his Gatorade.
The Nationals surely do not intend to leave Strasburg on an island, but in a momentum-sucking 4-0 loss to the Brewers at Nationals Park, their inability to support their ace reached dizzying and deflating depths. Strasburg tossed seven shutout innings and lowered his ERA to 2.24, but once he left the operation melted down. Storen yielded four runs on a walk and four hits, one of which could have been ruled an error — a fly ball plopped out of Harper’s glove at the warning track, bringing to mind his uneasy recent history with outfield fences.
Before Tuesday night, when the Nationals were shut out for the ninth time, the team had averaged 2.6 runs in games Strasburg started, the fewest in the majors. After scoring 23 runs in their previous two games, they could not muster one for him. Strasburg’s record still stands at 4-6 despite the sixth-lowest ERA in the majors.
If frustration or resentment had seeped in, Strasburg hid it. Rather than blaming teammates, he lauded them.
“I’m tired of talking about that,” Strasburg said. “These guys battle every single day just like I do. It just didn’t work out for us tonight. I’d get like to get over that. I’d like to stop answering questions about run support.”
Strasburg allowed just three hits, all singles, only one of which escaped the infield. He piled up eight strikeouts, finishing all of them with a diabolical curveball he relied on far more than usual, throwing it on 37 of his 105 pitches. Since Strasburg came off the disabled list, he has surrendered four earned runs in 26 innings over four starts.
The Nationals’ offense made it moot. Brewers right-hander Wily Peralta entered with a 5.58 ERA, but he shut down the Nationals for 51 / 3 innings. Once he exited with an injury, four Brewers relievers, including former National Michael Gonzalez, completed the shutout.
“The other guy pitched a pretty good ballgame,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “I didn’t think it was that good.”
Once Chad Tracy pinch-hit for Strasburg in the seventh inning, the Nationals unraveled. Storen had not allowed an earned run in 16 of his previous 17 appearances, returning to the form that in the past two seasons made him one of baseball’s best young relievers.
In the eighth inning, though, he entered in a scoreless game. Storen could not hold runners on base, and left-handed hitters shellacked him.
“He felt the umpire might have missed a [call],” Johnson said. “It seemed to upset him a little bit. He knows they’re going to run on him and he needs to speed it up. That probably affected him more than anything. He’s been pitching pretty good, and that wasn’t one of his better ones.”
Storen insisted the rough game came down to simple lack of execution. He fell behind in counts and left pitches over the plate, nothing more.
“I’ve been in situations worse than that before,” Storen said. “You’re just trying to make good pitches and left it up in the zone. Obviously, the results snowballed, but my head’s not snowballing. I’m going pitch to pitch. I’ve been doing it long enough that I’ve been in different situations, and if I’m letting things snowball, I shouldn’t be out there. I made mistakes not holding the runner and fell behind guys, and that’s going to hurt you. But mentally, I didn’t let it snowball.”
Logan Schafer, a lefty, led off with a single to right field. As Storen focused on Rickie Weeks, Schafer stole second with a massive jump — the fourth steal Storen had allowed in four attempts this year. He walked Weeks to put two runners on with no outs.
“Drew gets pretty competitive out there,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “I don’t know what was bothering him. He gets fiery out there. He’s a competitor.”
With one out, another left-handed hitter, Juan Francisco, crushed a double to the right-center field gap. Both runners trotted home, putting the Brewers ahead, 2-0.
With two outs, Martin Maldonado lofted a deep fly ball to left. Harper drifted back to the fence. He had just returned from a month on the disabled list with bursitis in his left knee, an ailment that stemmed from his collision with the right field wall at Dodger Stadium. With the left field fence at Nationals Park at his back, Harper dropped the ball. Another run scored on what was ruled a double.
“I dropped it,” Harper said, and he gave neither an excuse nor further explanation. Asked whether he felt the wall at all, Harper repeated, “I dropped it.”
“He didn’t see it until right at the end,” Johnson said.
Trying to end the inning, Storen lost track of Maldonado, and he bolted to third base on a pitch. Maldonado already had reached third by the time Jeff Bianchi’s grounder scooted into left field. Maldonado scored the Brewers’ fourth run.
“Something I gotta work on,” Storen said.
When Storen threw over to keep Bianchi close, the crowd responded with a Bronx cheer. Many already had found the nearest exit. Strasburg only could watch, his latest gem wadded up and tossed in a waste basket.
The Brewers fielded a lineup missing Ryan Braun, Jean Segura, Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy. From the start, Strasburg overpowered Milwaukee’s replacements. He blazed through the first inning in seven pitches.
“Honestly, my curveball was terrible in the bullpen,” Strasburg said. But as he gained a feel for it, Suzuki kept calling for it. The pitch kept falling off tables, and the Brewers kept whiffing.
“Keep throwing it if they’re going to keep swinging at it,” Strasburg said.
In the sixth inning, Strasburg loaded the bases with one out on two walks and a throwing error on Ryan Zimmerman. He then struck out Francisco and Halton, both on curveballs, the first buckled and the second unable to check his swing.
“He bowed his neck,” Johnson said.
As Strasburg kept putting up zeroes, so, too, did the Nationals. The Nationals loaded the bases in the first inning for Ian Desmond, who has had more RBI than any National League hitter since June 1. He got ahead of Peralta, 2-0, but his bouncer to second stranded all three runners.
The Nationals received another opening in the sixth. With one out, Peralta threw a 1-2 slider to Zimmerman and felt a twinge in his left hamstring. Trainers and coaches came to the mound, and Peralta exited with a strain.
The Nationals fared no better against Milwaukee’s bullpen. The Nationals put their first two runners on base in the ninth inning against closer Francisco Rodriguez, a final spurt that only added to the night’s frustration. Their best pitcher had been great, and the rest of the Nationals, for one night, were not nearly good enough.
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