MIAMI — The Washington Nationals possess a special talent for leaving you wanting more. Even on a day when they tattoo line drives and mash home runs, when Stephen Strasburg throws a curveball that appears to be guided by some dark force, they manage to make themselves sweat the final outcome. They have grown creative, even in victory, at obscuring their own bright spots.
Sunday afternoon, the Nationals’ 6-4 victory over the Miami Marlins included as much frustration as celebration. Strasburg (7-9) allowed four hits and struck out seven over six innings, but he worked around a bizarre second inning in which he balked home two runs. After six innings, the Nationals had clobbered two homers, two triples, two doubles and five singles. The Marlins had four singles. The Nationals led, naturally, by two runs. The conditions for a blowout yielded a nail-biter, which Rafael Soriano closed for his 39th save.
It may have been harder than it needed to be, but the Nationals did enough to escape tomb-like Marlins Park with a series victory. The Nationals obliterated Marlins starter Jacob Turner over four-plus innings. Ryan Zimmerman crushed a home run off the Clevelander bar in left field — his fifth homer in six games gave him 20 for the season. Wilson Ramos bashed a solo shot off the back wall in left, so deep he stared it down as he walked out of the batter’s box. (“That was a good one,” Ramos said.) Ian Desmond finished only a home run shy of the cycle.
Strasburg earned his first road win since May 16, but it came with another strange twist in a season that had already seen an ejection, a rain-shortened start, an injury-curtailed outing and a defeat built around his catcher’s pickoff throw nailing a bat. Sunday, it was a pair of balks that scored two runs in the second inning.
“Pretty embarrassed with the balks,” Strasburg said. “Seems like something new happens every time this year. Learn from it and try and do better with that next time.”
All season, Strasburg had pitched out of the stretch with a runner on third base. Sunday, he decided to make a change and throw from the windup, which enhances the quality of his pitches. Since he had only thrown from the windup with the bases open, he never had to think about the sequence of Ramos’s signs when pitching from the windup. With no runners, Ramos gives him one sign and he proceeds. With a runner on second, Ramos gives three signals to prevent sign stealing.
So with the bases loaded and no outs in the second, Strasburg peered past Adeiny Hechavarria and saw Ramos put down a sign. He liked the pitch and reached into his glove for the ball to start his delivery. He quickly realized Ramos had not stopped giving signals and pulled his hand out of his glove without the ball. Home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom pointed at the mound and called a balk, which forced home the Marlins’ first run.
“We should be past that,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “This shouldn’t happen at this level at this point.”
Except it happened again. Hechavarria dribbled a grounder back to the mound, an out that scored another run. After a walk and a sac bunt left runners on second and third with two outs, Strasburg again peered in for a signal. And again, he forgot he needed to wait until Ramos had finished. Strasburg flinched as he went to grab the ball in his glove. Cederstrom called another balk, and Placido Polanco trotted home with a 3-1 Marlins lead.
“He was out of sorts today,” Johnson said.
Strasburg shook off his funk in time to preserve the Nationals’ victory. After his second balk, Strasburg retired 10 consecutive Marlins. Zimmerman led off the third with his home run and Desmond scalded an RBI double to right-center field. In the fifth, Ramos’s RBI single and Anthony Rendon’s run-scoring triple gave Strasburg a lead he would not relinquish.
“It can go two ways,” Strasburg said. “You can kind of let that affect you and carry that into the next inning. I didn’t want to do that, especially with the way we’ve been swinging the bats. I knew if I just kept it close they were going to bust open.”
Johnson thought Strasburg should have pitched deeper into the game, but he pulled him after the sixth, which Strasburg began by hitting Donovan Solano in the ribs with a fastball. “You can’t be doing that,” Johnson said.
After he exited, Strasburg and pitching coach Steve McCatty talked in the dugout for about 15 minutes, the conversation at times growing animated.
“Just a normal conversation between a pitcher and the pitching coach,” Strasburg said. “Leave it at that. Not everybody needs to know about it.”
McCatty spoke to Strasburg about “some of the things that he shouldn’t let be issues with him,” Johnson said. “There’s some times he takes issue with certain things that happen during a ballgame and they shouldn’t have any bearing on what’s going to happen in the ballgame. He’s better than that.”
In a season of constantly waning expectations, the Nationals had never seemed further from relevance. Entire sections of the cavernous stadium remained empty. Noise echoed off the walls. Fans looked like small islands in an ocean of empty blue seats. The Nationals finished Sunday eight games behind the Cincinnati Reds for the second wild-card spot with only 20 games to play. After the Reds won last night, the margin was back to eight games.
“I don’t think about that,” Soriano said. “We’ll win and see what happens. That’s what everybody here needs to focus on. Win, play better games, and whatever happens. I don’t think watching the games, watching everything that happens. No, I don’t do that. I don’t like it. When I’m done, I watch something else, listen to my music, that’s it.”