Stephen Strasburg sparkles again, but Nationals come up short vs. Royals

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2010; D01

Stephen Strasburg provided something close to the sparkling, dominating performance everyone has grown to expect. On Wednesday afternoon, against a pesky lineup and in oppressive heat, he allowed just one run, struck out nine and gave the Washington Nationals as good a chance at victory as they could hope for. Strasburg did his job.

And yet, the barren space in his loss column will be replaced with a digit. The Nationals provided Strasburg no offensive support for the second straight start as they lost, 1-0, to the Kansas City Royals and starting pitcher Brian Bannister, who entered with a 5.70 ERA and for six innings was as untouchable as Strasburg.

While Strasburg allowed one run over six innings in sweltering heat that reminded him of pitching college road games at Texas Christian, the Nationals produced six hits overall -- and one of those came off Strasburg's bat, his first career hit, a roller through the left side of the infield. As the heat -- 93 degrees at opening pitch -- kept people away and sapped energy from the 31,913 fans who did show up, Strasburg endured his most trying start. That's saying something about his first three outings.

"I think we were on the nice list for Strasmas this year," Bannister said. "It's a tough list to get on to."

Strasburg's nine strikeouts raised his season total to 41, surpassing by one the record Cleveland's Herb Score set in 1955 for most strikeouts in a pitcher's first four career starts. It also moved him one ahead of Liván Hernández for most strikeouts this season by a Nationals starter.

Strasburg threw 75 strikes in 95 pitches, an off-the-charts rate that may have actually been too many against a free-swinging, slap-hitting team. Strasburg allowed no walks and nine hits -- one less than he allowed in his first three starts combined. They were all singles, including former National José Guillén's RBI single to right field in the fifth inning.

"You've got to give them credit," Strasburg said. "They weren't going to give in. They wanted to put the ball in play. I wouldn't say they were sitting dead-red on it. They hit into spots that just found holes. That's baseball."

The Royals found only enough spots to score one run, which against the Nationals' offense was enough. Washington has scored four or fewer runs in nine straight games, a span in which the team is hitting .203 with a .248 on-base percentage and a 2-7 overall record. One of the final 10 Nationals batters reached base, and five of them struck out.

There are culprits everywhere. Ian Desmond is zero for his last 14. Nyjer Morgan is four for his last 24 with a .308 overall on-base percentage. Ryan Zimmerman has six RBI in June, an indictment of both his hitting (a .239 average) and the dearth of chances he has.

"We have a good offense on paper," left fielder Josh Willingham said. "It starts from the top, you know? When Nyjer plays well it helps our offense."

Opponents entered the afternoon 1 for 38 against Strasburg after the count went to two strikes. The Royals flipped that statistic. Of the nine hits Strasburg allowed, four came with two strikes -- including all three of the singles that spoiled his start.

Strasburg breezed through the first two outs of the fifth, striking out Scott Podsednik and inducing a lineout by Jason Kendall on only five pitches. David DeJesus dashed any chances at a quick inning. He worked a 3-2 count and, on the seventh pitch of the at-bat, shot a 99-mph fastball, the fastest Strasburg threw all day, between shortstop and third base.

Billy Butler fell behind 0-2 before softly serving an 82-mph curveball to right field for a single. "He just didn't get it off the plate," Manager Jim Riggleman said.

With men on first and third, Guillén also fell behind 0-2. He hooked a curveball foul. Still up 0-2, Strasburg could throw any pitch he wanted in any place he wanted. He fired a 96-mph fastball over the plate's heart. Guillén roped it to right field, scoring DeJesus. Three opposite-field singles, all with two strikes, had staggered Strasburg and left the Nationals down 1-0.

"That kid has some pretty good stuff," Guillén said. "He still has a little to learn about how to pitch in certain counts."

The Nationals' real problem, of course, was anything but Strasburg. They could have scored in the fifth, when Willingham reached third with no outs. They may have had a run stolen in the sixth, when Adam Dunn lasered a single through the shift in right.

Roger Bernadina raced from second, third base coach Pat Listach windmilling him home as Guillén scooped up the ball. The throw sailed, bouncing as Kendall reached to his right. Bernadina slid spikes up into home, his left foot crossing before Kendall swiped his mitt. A jubilant crowd cheered. Home plate umpire Hunter Wendlestedt punched the air -- out. An angry crowd erupted.

"I was shocked," Bernadina said.

From there, the Nationals went quietly. They had wasted another performance from their best pitcher. He said he knows there will be days when the Nationals' offense bails him out. It's hard to imagine him needing that.

"Now I realize why everyone is talking about him," Guillén said. "It's like he's a Hall of Famer. That's the way people have been talking about him."

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