Nationals lose to Tigers, 8-3; fall four games under .500

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2010

DETROIT -- One day after the starting pitcher the Washington Nationals assumed would be their best this season faltered, the starting pitcher who became their best followed suit. The Nationals have already decreed Stephen Strasburg, for the time being, will pitch every fifth day no matter what. He cannot pitch with any greater frequency.

And so, after Liván Hernández's clunker Wednesday night in an 8-3 loss to the Detroit Tigers, the Nationals just have to hope their starting five will revert to the stable, solid unit it had been for most of the season. After two-fifths of their rotation gave them little chance in consecutive starts, the Nationals suffered their fourth loss in five games and matched a season nadir by falling four games under .500 at 31-35.

While starting pitching after Strasburg has been the most recent bugaboo, the Nationals have not played like a contending -- or even mediocre -- team for roughly a month. They are 11-20 since May 15, a spell that has left them with the 11th best record in the National League.

"We just haven't played very good," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "Our record indicates how we've played. Earlier, I thought we ran into some bad luck, things weren't going our way. We've played about the way our record indicates. That's about where we are right now."

The Nationals have no one definitive, glaring problem. For the last two nights, beginning with John Lannan's subpar outing Tuesday, it toggled to starting pitcher. Hernández had been the pre-Strasburg ace this year. But Wednesday, as he allowed more earned runs in a start than any National this year, his ERA rose from 2.28 to 2.94. He allowed eight earned runs on seven hits and six walks, an unusual spasm of wildness that hurt him most in the second, when he walked three batters and buried the Nationals.

Watching Hernández flutter mid-60s curveballs while Tigers starter Justin Verlander hurled high-90s fastballs offered a sensation like eating ice cream and drinking hot coffee at the same time. In the fifth, Hernández struck out Miguel Cabrera on a 65 mph curveball. An inning later, Verlander struck out Ryan Zimmerman on a 101 mph fastball, a pitch faster than any Strasburg has thrown this year.

In the end, only Verlander prevailed. Hernández needed only six pitches to breeze through the first inning. He threw his sinker down and out of the strike zone, and the Tigers flailed. In the second, he tried the same thing. "Nobody was swinging at anything," Hernández said.

When he fell behind and needed a strike, his control crumbled. On most nights, Hernández can lodge a baseball into a tailpipe from 60 feet 6 inches. On Wednesday, he walked four in a span of nine batters. To right-handed batters, his slider sailed outside, his curveball in and his sinker low.

He walked Cabrera to lead off the second, Brennan Boesch followed with a single and Hernández walked Carlos Guillén to fill the bases.

With Brandon Inge at the plate, Hernández endured a momentary implosion. He threw three straight balls, and Inge looked at two strikes that could have also been balls, particularly the 3-1 pitch. Granted reprieve, Hernández fired a 3-2 fastball over the opposite batter's box, forcing in a run.

Gerald Laird followed with a two-run single. The first five batters of the inning had reached base. Inge later scored on a sacrifice fly, and Hernández's miniature meltdown had given the Tigers a 4-2 lead.

The Nationals started fast. Verlander had allowed two home runs in his previous nine starts, and in two innings the Nationals crushed two. In the first, Adam Dunn smashed a 95-mph fastball to straightaway center field, just to the left of the 420-foot mark, only the second home run to center at Comerica Park this season. In the second, Roger Bernadina yanked another 95 mph heater deep over the right field fence.

"Coming out against Verlander, I think a lot of teams in the American League would be happy to get two runs off that guy," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We've got to pitch, we've got to play defense to make that stick. That's the difference right now. Early in the season, we were winning those 2-1, 3-0, 3-2 games."

They added one more run in the sixth to slice the Tigers' lead to two. Boesch ended any hope for a comeback with a three-run home run in the seventh off of Hernández, a missile to right field that ended the competitive phase of the game.

All year long, the Nationals' starters have given them a chance to win. Suddenly, they can only be sure of that once every five days.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company