PITTSBURGH — Stephen Strasburg had cruised through seven innings, needing only 94 pitches, before Manager Dave Martinez shook his hand and phoned the bullpen Tuesday night. The decision seemed like a toss-up in the moment. Hindsight would later hate it.
The Washington Nationals led by a run going into the bottom of the eighth at PNC Park. Wander Suero entered and loaded the bases without getting an out. Daniel Hudson relieved him to try to short-circuit disaster, but he allowed the Pittsburgh Pirates to tie it on a sacrifice fly. Then Starling Marte blasted a misplaced fastball 397 feet to right-center, and three runs came in to score. The Nationals soon lost to the Pirates, 4-1, and their still-shaky bullpen was the reason.
Two days after closer Sean Doolittle went to the injured list, and three weeks after three relievers were added at the trade deadline, the same old issues resurfaced. Hudson, one of the new arms, had his worst outing with the team. Hunter Strickland, another July 31 acquisition, broke his nose in a weight room accident yet was available to pitch and is expected to avoid the injured list. The offense fell from its soaring high and couldn’t solve a mash-up of Pirates relievers. And, in the end, Washington wasted one of Strasburg’s best starts of the season.
“Strasburg was amazing; he gave us what he did,” Martinez said. “We had a well-rested bullpen; we just couldn’t close it out.”
Baseball is a game of superstition. The Nationals had been crushing the ball — scoring 43 runs in their previous three games and 62 in their previous five — and setting all kinds of franchise records along the way. But they dwelled on that quietly. Success at the plate, by any measure, is often fleeting. So General Manager Mike Rizzo repeated his morning routine in Pittsburgh, peeking into the window of a popular local coffee shop, then choosing Dunkin’ for the second straight day. When asked about the offense Monday night, after a 13-0 win, Martinez knocked on his wooden desk three times — to delay his answer, and for good luck.
Adam Eaton had been at the center of it all, smacking a homer in three consecutive games heading into Tuesday and five of the past six going back to a big win over the Cincinnati Reds last week. Yet he also sidestepped questions on the recent offensive surge.
How do you explain it? You don’t. What about the confidence everyone is feeling? You channel it into the next at-bat. But, really, what allows a team to be so hot for so many games in a row? If Eaton knew, he probably wouldn’t tell you. He would rather look ahead to tomorrow.
Then tomorrow came, the offense shut off, and it was easy to see why superstitions persist.
“It’s just weird. It’s baseball,” Martinez said after his club collected six hits and left eight runners on base. “We score 60-something runs in five games, and then today we just couldn’t get any runs but one.”
There was nothing flashy with Strasburg, nothing that really stood out — just him dominating, efficiently, from the start of the game until it was six outs from the bitter end. He worked through the first four innings on 46 pitches. The Pirates did threaten in the fifth — after Colin Moran singled and took second on a wild pitch — but Strasburg used a strikeout, flyout and groundout to avoid any damage.
Then Strasburg worked a scoreless sixth and a scoreless seventh, and soon he exited with his lowest pitch count since May 18.
“Well, Davey thought it was enough,” Strasburg said of getting pulled in that spot. Martinez said he felt that way because Strasburg had thrown 110 pitches in his previous outing.
Suero came in and quickly gave up a hit, threw a wild pitch, issued a walk and yielded a bunt single to load the bases. Martinez liked him with two left-handers coming up in Melky Cabrera and Adam Frazier, and because he is still without lefty reliever Roenis Elías, on the injured list with a hamstring strain. Suero’s cutter, in Martinez’s eyes, makes him the next-best fit in those matchups. But the righty later described odd movement with his cutter, saying it was spinning downward instead of its usual sharp side to side. That made it hard for Suero to locate the pitch and figure out where to start it, a big problem because he uses it 70 percent of the time.
So Hudson looked to induce weak contact once he took the ball from Martinez. He had been lights-out since joining the Nationals, giving up one run in 8⅓ innings and continuing his success stranding runners in high-leverage spots. The Nationals needed him to do that again, in his toughest task yet, but he couldn’t avoid bats on Bryan Reynolds’s sacrifice fly or Marte’s uppercut swing. The latter did the Nationals in.
“I had Marte in a put-away count and I threw a really bad fastball,” Hudson said. “Probably the worst one I’ve thrown since I’ve been here.”
His home run triggered fireworks above center field, obscuring the ballpark’s clean view of the city and giving the scattered crowd a reason to cheer. And by the time the smoke dissipated and Hudson got back on the rubber, Washington was spiraling toward a group loss.
The Nationals’ only run came on Anthony Rendon’s double in the fifth. The bullpen couldn’t hold a lead. And none of Washington’s problems were connected to the ninth inning or Doolittle’s absence.
The game, as it turned out, never got to that point.