By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 22, 2009
All summer, Stephen Strasburg -- separated from the Washington Nationals by three time zones and one prominent sports agent -- tried his best to distance himself from getting too much information about his potential future team. It was better, he figured, to narrow his world into what mattered: workouts, friends, a little travel.
But on Friday, Strasburg signed a professional contract. His name materialized on Washington's 40-man roster. By nightfall, Strasburg, wearing a navy Curly W polo shirt, settled into a Nationals Park suite and got a first impression. In some respects, he saw a typical 2009 performance. For one thing, it rained, delaying the game by 20 minutes in the eighth. For another, Washington lost, the bullpen providing a late-inning lowlight. And this year's Nationals have struggled to contend with both the clouds and themselves.
Still, Friday's game -- a 7-3 decision against the Milwaukee Brewers, with 26,307 in attendance -- fizzled into a fourth consecutive defeat because of the latest weak performance from a usually muscular offense. For the Nationals, the lowly run productivity is a deviation -- the team has the third-best batting average in the National League -- but it's also saddled the games of the last week. This homestand, Washington has now scored 3, 4, 1 and 3 runs. This, from an offense that averaged 6.0 runs per game from July 25 until Aug. 16.
So what happened? Formidable opposing pitching explains part of it. Colorado, the first opponent this week, used Ubaldo Jiménez, Jason Marquis and Jason Hammel -- a trio interim manager Jim Riggleman described as perhaps the toughest of the season. Milwaukee, though, relied on Braden Looper, a middling starter with a 5.03 ERA. Looper held the Nationals to four hits -- including an Adam Dunn first-inning homer -- through six, and then the bullpen finished it off. Todd Coffey threw just eight pitches in a perfect seventh. He threw eight more in a perfect eighth.
"Hitting goes in cycles," Dunn said. "Our pitchers are keeping us in the games. We just haven't been able to score runs like we have or we need to."
Before Trevor Hoffman could come on in the ninth for his 581st save, and his first at Nationals Park, Washington reliever Jorge Sosa hijacked the save opportunity, turning a two-run game into a five-run game in the top of the ninth. Sosa, to start the inning, allowed three consecutive singles, then a walk, then another single, as Milwaukee padded its lead.
Hoffman surfaced in the ninth and immediately gave up Ryan Zimmerman's 25th home run of the year, but he retired the final three in order.
"For the most part in that game we were down a couple runs and Milwaukee had three runs, four runs," Riggleman said. "The message I said to our ballclub: When the other club has got four runs, we [should] win those games, and that has not been the case the last few days."
Washington fell behind in the earlier innings on account of two home runs given up by starter J.D. Martin (6 2/3 innings, four earned runs). A paint-the-corners soft-tosser who thrived with Class AAA Syracuse before his call-up, Martin has learned in the big leagues about his scant margin for errors. When he misses the corners, balls travel.
Martin only permitted four runs against Milwaukee, but three of those came from home runs -- a Prince Fielder two-run launch just several feet beyond the center field wall in the first, and a Casey McGehee solo homer that sailed over the left field visitor's bullpen in the fourth. Martin has allowed seven home runs in 34 innings, or 1.85 per nine innings. Only one Nationals starter, Collin Balester, has a poorer rate. Three times in his last five outings, Martin has given up at least two blasts. Just for perspective, the Nationals are 6-26 this season when giving up two or more home runs.
"I feel like I made a couple mistakes and they capitalized on it," Martin said. "And otherwise I felt great."