By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2010; D01
ATLANTA -- Stephen Strasburg's dominance gives losing a degree of difficulty, but his Washington Nationals teammates have sunk to the challenge. In five starts, Strasburg has strung together perhaps the finest beginning ever to a starting pitcher's career. The Nationals, during a descent toward the wretched baseball that defined them for two years, have won two of those games.
The Nationals offered Strasburg no offensive support Monday night in a 5-0 loss to the Atlanta Braves, but they had done that before. This time, they could not even get out of his way. Shortstop Ian Desmond botched a routine double-play groundball in the seventh, which led directly to the game's only runs, their fifth straight defeat and Strasburg's tragicomic demise. The 42,889 at Turner Field -- 21,608 of which bought tickets in the previous five days -- actually chanted "Over-rated!"
"Not good enough to win the game," Strasburg said. "Period."
Strasburg allowed three (technically) earned runs on six hits and two walks while striking out seven in 6 1/3 innings. His ERA rose to 2.27 and his strikeout total for the year shot to 48, third-most all time in a pitcher's first five starts. During one stretch, Strasburg struck out a batter, induced a double play, and then struck out five straight Braves. Before the game, Braves Manager Bobby Cox called him "a Hall of Famer in the making."
"He's special," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "You've seen 100 mile per hour fastballs. You've seen dominant curveballs, unbelievable change-ups. What's amazing is the fact he throws 100 and still has the feel to throw two other pitches for strikes any time he wants, any time in the count. This is the complete package."
Strasburg's brilliance stood in contrast to his teammates. For the second straight start, the Nationals scored zero runs in support of Strasburg. Braves starter Tim Hudson shut them out for seven innings, and only Roger Bernadina, who did it twice, made it past first base against him. Strasburg has allowed only five earned runs in his past three starts, but the Nationals have scored only one run in those games and lost all three.
"The biggest challenge for me is, I just got to remind myself what the goal is and what the team needs me to do," Strasburg said. "The team needs me to go out there and keep the team within striking distance. There's going to be games when we end up not scoring those runs. We're trying to get back together as a team collectively."
Strasburg has proved his mental strength in handling unprecedented hype placed on him. Losing despite strong performances is unlikely to shake him.
"I don't think he gauges his success and failures on his win-loss record," General Manager Mike Rizzo said. "I know I look deeper into it. I think when he pitches well in the future, we're going to win those games. He's everything I dreamed of."
Before the game, following a ghastly three-game sweep in Baltimore, Manager Jim Riggleman called a team meeting. He affirmed comments Rizzo made Sunday afternoon when he vowed the team would not tolerate more substandard defense.
In the seventh, their defense struck again. Strasburg had cruised for six innings and entered with 73 pitches -- "I thought he might go eight" innings for the first time, Riggleman said. Strasburg had grounded out and sprinted to first to make the last out of the sixth. He walked Jones on four pitches and allowed Brian McCann a smash up the middle for a single, putting two on with no outs.
"He looked tired to me," Jones said. "He just had that tired look. But he's a competitor."
Strasburg, though, had escaped jams before without any margin for error, twice ending innings with a double play. At shortstop, Desmond readied. He wanted Troy Glaus to hit him the ball. "I knew if he threw a [sinker], the groundball was coming to me," Desmond said later.
Strasburg fired Glaus a 2-2, 98-mph sinking fastball. Glaus grounded to Desmond; "I got the result I wanted," Strasburg said. Desmond crouched to field the ball, and it hopped hard high and to his left. Running past, Jones noticed the tough bounce -- "bad hops happen," Jones said afterward.
The ball deflected off Desmond's glove and shoulder, and he could not recover as the ball trickled away. Everyone was safe. Desmond had committed his 19th error, most in the majors. By game's end, the Nationals had yielded their 37th unearned run in 40 games.
Ever confident, Desmond remained resolute afterward, saying he wanted the same chance to field the same groundball the next day. His bosses supported him, too.
"I'd take nine of him," Riggleman said. "He's going to be a star in this league.
Said Rizzo: "His energy, his range, his abilities, he's going to be around here playing shortstop for a long time. He's going to save us a lot of runs. It's growing pains."
On Monday night, though, his error cost the Nationals. With the bases loaded, Eric Hinske lofted a 3-1 fastball to center field to score the only run the Braves needed. Yunel Escobar followed with an RBI single to center, ending Strasburg's night.
Even as Strasburg was "battling myself the whole way," he said, he was as good as ever. He didn't allow the Braves, his toughest lineup yet, any runs in the first six innings. He hit 100 mph once, on a ball to Martín Prado, and used far more change-ups than curveballs to keep the Braves off--balance.
"He can only get worse," said Cox, the longest-tenured manager in baseball. "It's amazing. Unhittable. He's got nowhere to go. He's already at utopia. It's not supposed to work that way in this game. In his case, it has."
Strasburg's reward so far has been praise he does not seem to care for and the sting of losing his teammates know far too well. In the face of what Riggleman called, "one of the toughest stretches I've experienced," the Nationals tried to shed their recent past and move on.
"We're all positive," catcher Iván Rodríguez said.
Said Rizzo: "Guys are pressing right now. Everyone is pressing. This is a group that takes losing really, really hard. I've got their backs. We've got to go get them tomorrow."