But Johnson did not spare his ace. Stephen Strasburg held the Braves scoreless for five innings, then allowed a four runs in the sixth inning, two of the runners scoring after Michael Gonzalez replaced him. Even though Strasburg pitched off his fastball, Johnson chastened him for not being aggressive enough.
“He felt like he was missing, but I felt like he just wasn’t going after them,” Johnson said. “He wasted a lot of pitches. He really doesn’t know who he is at times. He doesn’t trust his stuff. It was a little avoiding contact, trying to make too good of pitches. I know they’re a pretty good-hitting ballclub, but he’s got pretty good stuff.
“Another thing, too, when you throw a lot of pitches to hitters they get a better gauge on you. It’s easier to hit. You see 2-3 fastballs missed, it’s easier to start gauging somebody. It’s a lot tougher when you go right after them and they’ve got to put it in play.”
Strasburg was not as tough on himself. Strasburg needed 71 pitches to make it through the first four innings and left the mound after throwing 103. In one six-batter span that began in the second inning, Strasburg issued three walks. Twice, the Braves started innings with a double. But Strasburg managed to make pitches when he needed them.
“I wasn’t striking everybody out and I wasn’t going 1-2-3, but that usually never happens, anyway,” Strasburg said. “They were a good team. They were taking a lot of close pitches they could have swung at. It’s really out of my control. I was trying to pound the strike zone and just missing a little bit tonight.”
It speaks to Strasburg’s ability that he carried a shutout into the sixth inning in a start that could be nitpicked. But his last inning verged on disaster. His fastball dropped to the low-to-mid 90s. Freddie Freeman led off with a single, and Brian McCann followed by blasting a 92-mph fastball over the scoreboard in right field. Dan Uggla ripped another single and Paul Janish smoked a lineout to right.
One pitch after Strasburg bounced a changeup, pinch-hitter Eric Hinske drilled a 94-mph fastball off the top of the right field fence, so close to a home run that umpires reviewed the hit before ruling it a double.
“It’s tough, trying to go out there and make pitches, leave a couple pitches up,” Strasburg said. “They were hitting them. I really can’t stress about the last inning too much.”
The Nationals still led by seven runs when Strasburg walked off the mound, so the loss, certainly, does not fall on him. But Johnson’s point got across: Strasburg has too much talent to surpass 100 pitches in the sixth inning.
The Nationals now had to figure out a way to come back Saturday for a day-night doubleheader, starting at 1:05 p.m. How will they respond to the brutal loss?
“Same way we’d come back if we won 3-2,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “It’s one game. Obviously, it’s an emotional game for people watching. And it gets to us a little bit. In the grand scheme of things, it’s one game. We’ll show up tomorrow just like we do after every other game.” . . .
The Nationals have not made anything official, but Johnson said the Nationals planned to designate Xavier Nady for assignment barring any injuries Friday night. Since no one was hurt, the Nationals likely cut ties with Nady, who had hit .157 in 102 at-bats early this season. The Nationals had to decide now because Nady had reached his 20-game limit on a rehab assignment.