DENVER — The thin, inviting air of Coors Field, an opponent with a horrendous record and Jeff Francis, a starting pitcher with a fastball that would not break the speed limit in some states, awaited the Washington Nationals on Monday. Their slacking offense had a met the kind of ripe combination everyone feasts on. Everyone, it seems, but them.
“We’ve faced some pitchers everybody jumps on,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “And they look like Sandy Koufax over there.”
In the Nationals’ 4-2 loss to the Colorado Rockies, Stephen Strasburg fell victim to his offense’s continued doldrums and the difficulty in bouncing back after hitting an opposing batter in the helmet. Strasburg, despite a dearth of support, carried a one-run lead into the sixth inning. He then drilled shortstop Marco Scutaro with a 95-mph fastball square in the helmet. Scutaro left the game on his own, and within three batters Strasburg had lost the lead.
The Nationals’ meager offense again left their dominant pitching staff out to dry. Against Francis, a soft-tossing left-hander with an 8.56 ERA on a 75-pitch limit, the Nationals managed two runs — one of which Strasburg himself drove in — on eight hits, and struck out 10 times. In their past 10 games, the Nationals have scored 25 runs.
They have not been shut down only by aces, but also the kind of starters a few bad pitches away from a bullpen assignment. In the past 10 games, the Nationals have scored two runs or less in games started by Ivan Nova (4.25 ERA), Phil Hughes (4.94), Jake Arrieta (5.55) and, now, Francis, who lowered his ERA to 7.23.
“A lot of times, pitchers are as good as we make ’em as an offense,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “It seems like guys with bigger ERAs seem to go pretty deep against us, give up one or two runs. We haven’t taken advantage of that.
“There’s no magic formula to do it. Just each guy put a good at-bat together, get enough guys out there, come up with some big hits. But we haven’t done it. We haven’t been scoring lots of runs. We’re winning some games. But the offense, we all need to step it up.”
Francis flummoxed the Nationals, throwing a fastball that never hit 87 mph, a tricky change-up and a slow curveball. The Nationals could not wait for the pitches to reach them, flailing and making weak contact in front of the plate. Francis fed Bryce Harper lazy sliders well off the outside edge of the plate. Harper struck out twice in three at-bats against Francis, and he finished 0 for 4 with three strikeouts.
“Our approach wasn’t very good,” Johnson said. “I think we’re getting caught in between. We’re getting caught in between fastballs and breaking balls and we’re chasing out of the zone. We’ve got some more veteran hitters doing the same thing, but the younger guys are more guilty. But our approach has just to go improve.”
Johnson plans on addressing the flawed approach with Nationals players and hitting coach Rick Eckstein. He believes they are over-thinking at the plate.
“We work on the same things,” LaRoche said. “We go out in the game and we try to get a little extra, and it’s not a good result half the time.”
The temperature at first pitch was 100 degrees, making it the hottest game in Rockies history. Strasburg dominated for the first five innings, and he would finish with eight strikeouts, giving him 118 in 92 innings this season. Ryan Zimmerman’s RBI double off the first base bag staked him to a lead. Strasburg allowed a run on Dexter Fowler’s dribbler, an infield single that Ian Desmond tried to prevent with a bare-handed play.
Strasburg took care of that run himself. In the fifth inning, catcher Jesus Flores led off with a double off the left-center field fence. Strasburg rifled a line drive into the left-center gap, the ball scooting all the way to the fence. Flores scored, and Strasburg strolled into second. The double gave Strasburg five extra-base hits, three more than any other pitcher in the majors, and a .652 slugging percentage. Strasburg can pitch better than most every pitcher, and so it seems inequitable that he can hit better than all of them, too.
“The guy who hit him the hardest was my pitcher,” Johnson said. “We’ve got too much talent not to be swinging the bats better.”
The Rockies had an answer. In the bottom of the sixth, Fowler laced a triple into the right field corner. On the first pitch to Scutaro, Strasburg wanted to throw a low fastball Scutaro would hit into the ground. “I tried to throw a sinker,” Strasburg said. “And it just got away from me.”
The ball ricocheted off Scutaro’s helmet, almost all the way to the Rockies’ dugout. Strasburg peeled the cap off his head and looked at the plate, a sick look on his face. A trainer rushed from the dugout and tended to Scutaro. He rose to his feet, the trainer’s arm around his neck, and bent at the waist. Scutaro walked off under his power, and after a few warmup tosses, Strasburg returned to work.
“You think about it for a second and you hope that he’s okay,” Strasburg said. “But once I saw him walk off, I figured he’d be okay.”
The Rockies had the middle of their lineup ready, and they did not exactly bang the ball. Against Carlos Gonzalez, Strasburg thought he had frozen him with a 2-2 pitch for strike three. But the at-bat continued when it was called a ball. Gonzalez lashed a single to right, which scored Fowler.
Michael Cuddyer followed with another base hit, which loaded the bases. Todd Helton lifted a fly ball to center field, deep enough to score pinch runner Chris Nelson from third with ease. The Rockies had taken a 3-2 lead.
“They did a good job of battling up there and they weren’t trying to get too big,” Strasburg said. “They were just trying to take what was given to them and regardless of how bad it looked they got some hits.”
Johnson lifted him for a pinch hitter in the seventh, ending Strasburg’s night after 97 pitches — 32 of them in the two-run sixth. Strasburg had won six starts in a row. Against the 28-44 Rockies, there would not be a seventh.
Three runs should not be an insurmountable total, but the Nationals’ offense could do nothing to assist Strasburg. In the sixth inning, Desmond nailed a triple off Rockies reliever Josh Roenicke, who just so happens to be married to his sister — he had secured bragging rights over his brother-in-law for many Thanksgivings to come.
It provided a moment of levity, but also, in hindsight, of distress: Tyler Moore followed with a walk, and then the Nationals’ next nine hitters went down.
They managed a flicker of a rally in the ninth. Moore blooped a single with one out in the ninth inning, and Flores delivered another single, his third hit. Roger Bernadina smashed a screaming line drive, but right into Cuddyer’s mitt in right field.
But when Danny Espinosa grounded out, the Nationals had their third loss in four games. They had arrived at the perfect opportunity to snap their offensive swoon. If they could not do it Monday night, when will they?
“We’ve just got to change our approach, get a little smarter,” Johnson said. “That’s all.”