In his 25th career major league start, Strasburg allowed more than three earned runs for only the second time. Only one of his starts, when he pitched three innings last season in his second start back from Tommy John surgery, had been shorter than four innings.
“Sometimes it’s just not going to be your day and things aren’t going to go your way,” Strasburg said. “. . . It was just tough conditions all around. But I’m not one to make excuses.”
In an unusual postgame revelation, Manager Davey Johnson volunteered just how tough. Strasburg, Johnson said, had applied the analgesic ointment Hot Stuff to loosen up, and somehow, it had covered an area that would affect a pitcher’s performance.
“I can’t really tell you what the problem was, but some Hot Stuff got misplaced,” Johnson said. “It was on his shoulder and evidently — I don’t know how it got to where it got, but it was uncomfortable, to say the least.”
The sense in the Nationals’ clubhouse was that no one would have pulled a prank on Strasburg on the day he pitched, and that the ointment had found the wrong place by accident. Strasburg, who seemed miffed that Johnson had brought up the incident, didn’t address what had gone wrong.
“Yeah, you know, I’m going to keep that in the clubhouse,” Strasburg said.
Bryce Harper provided the Nationals’ lone bright spot in an otherwise bleak performance. In the fifth, Harper smashed a 1-0, 91-mph fastball from Padres starter Anthony Bass over the corner of the high wall in right-center field, following his first career home run Monday night with another that landed about 40 feet to the left. Harper became the first teenager to hit homers on consecutive days since Ken Griffey Jr. in 1989.
Bass otherwise silenced the Nationals, who had scored at least six runs in three of their past four games. They did not record their first hit until Ian Desmond led off the fourth with a single. Over eight innings, Bass allowed one run on five hits and one walk.
It was the kind of performance that has become expected of Strasburg. The weak-hitting opponent and the hazy sky seemed a perfect recipe for Strasburg, who had struck out 13 Pittsburgh Pirates in his last start. Rather than pitching a gem, Strasburg, with a crucial assist from his defense, unraveled at the start.