The Washington Nationals’ blight of physical maladies finally reached total absurdity Tuesday afternoon when Stephen Strasburg, pitching in a downpour, was apparently attacked by the topical analgesic balm, Hot Stuff, that pitchers sometimes rub on their bodies to keep them loose, limber and ornery.
One 300-game winner covered (almost) his whole body with the fiery ointment. However, when it rains very hard, goo can dilute and run. And you never know where it will travel.
On Tuesday afternoon, Strasburg allowed four runs in four innings in a 6-1 loss to San Diego, three of those runs in the first inning after three dawdling Nats allowed a simple popup to drop for a “double.” After the game, Manager Davey Johnson listed Strasburg’s hardships, including a brief rain delay with two outs, a full count and the bases loaded in the first that was followed by a two-run single on his first pitch after the rain.
Then Johnson volunteered another factor at his news conference. “The Hot Stuff on Stras,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how it got where it got, but it wasn’t comfortable. . . . Somehow it got the wrong place.”
When asked for additional details, pitching coach Steve McCatty said, “I’m not gonna touch that.”
Said Strasburg: “We’ll keep that in the clubhouse.”
Surely, this is the end of the Nats’ spring-long imitation of the afflictions of Job. After this, all that’s left is an outbreak of biblical boils.
Johnson blames himself. Just before every game, he tries to remember to say a quick prayer that “nobody on either club gets hurt and may the best team win.” He has done it for years. But sometimes, he forgets.
“I must not be sayin’ that prayer enough,” he said, shaking his head. “This is getting ridiculous. This team is beat up more than any one I’ve ever had.” So far, he hasn’t been tempted to try luck-changing superstitions like “sacrifice a chicken. I’ve heard it all.”
But don’t rule out the Nats having a Mayan Calendar Giveaway Night.
There may be some hint of Johnson’s future plans in the catcher he chose to bring up on Tuesday: 265-pound Carlos Maldonado. The previous emergency catcher summoned to Washington (Sandy Leon) lasted four innings in his big league debut Monday before being blasted in a collision at home plate that put him on the 15-day disabled list.
“Maybe Carlos is big enough that nobody can hurt him,” Johnson said.
How bad is this Nats blight? It’s now 500 lost games and counting. That is the best ballpark guess, so far, on the damage to the Nats this spring from disabled-list injuries to Michael Morse, Drew Storen, Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos, Ryan Zimmerman, Brad Lidge, Mark DeRosa and Chien-Ming Wang — all players who were projected as part of their opening day roster.
Those players include three heart-of-the-order bats, the Nats’ closer, their starting catcher, a potential starter and two key bench vets. And that 500-game guess assumes everybody makes smooth recoveries with Wang back in two weeks, Morse in three weeks, Storen in July and Werth in August.
Waves of injuries have unexpected consequences. For the sake of putting his best possible lineup on the field behind Strasburg on Tuesday afternoon, Johnson used the same lineup from a game the previous night. For decades, when amphetamines were rampant, that’d be no problem. Then, you’d hear, “I never got outpitched; I just got out-greenied.”
Now, day baseball sometimes seems to be performed by zombies. Medically, that’s a big step forward. But for the Nats, it may have backfired on Strasburg on the first play of the game.
So, Roger Bernadina, Rick Ankiel and Ian Desmond never got within six feet of a ball that any of them could have caught. If baseball had a “team error” (a novelty that is only a century overdue) all three runs in the first would have been unearned.
The aftermath of this sloppy, dispirited defeat, distinguished only by a home run hitter’s home run by Bryce Harper — a high fly to center that just kept carrying into the third row behind the 14-foot-high wall — may have given a tip-off that Johnson considers this a vital time for the Nats to focus.
Davey seldom gets hot at stuff his players do, but there are ugly games when he makes it clear that he’ll make everybody, including the biggest names on his team (such as Cal Ripken Jr.), specifically accountable.
“This game started bad, kept going that way,” he said, noting “the three guys” who should’ve caught the pop, then waving off any praise of Harper’s homer, saying, “Harp broke the wrong way on a ball and it cost us a run.”
Johnson is a player’s manager, but the Nats, even at 22-14 and a half-game out of first place, are at a crucial point where their postseason chances can be jeopardized if they slack off at all before their core players start returning.
The best of all solutions to injury is exceptional pitching. And except for Storen, every essential Nats hurler is healthy. In many cases, such asGio Gonzalez (1.94 ERA), Jordan Zimmermann (2.14), Ross Detwiler (2.75), Craig Stammen (1.29), Ryan Mattheus (2.12) and Sean Burnett (0.90), they are pitching the best of their lives.
“We are a team, but everyone also has their own job to do,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “Before the game, you might say, ‘Dang, man, we’re banged up.’ But when the lights come on, you don’t have time to think about it.
“In some ways it helps the young guys. They know they’re going to play a lot. They think: ‘Nah, we’re going to win anyway. I’m going to step up.’ ”
Because their pitching, 11 deep, is the best in baseball so far by a wide margin (2.86 ERA), the Nats can afford to have patience in healing, especially if Zimmerman, hitting .230 with one homer, wakes up.
“We’re still in first place. We’re going to get more confidence as the year goes on,” Clippard said. “We’ll be a better team in July, August and September. We’re excited even though it [stinks] everybody is getting hurt.”
And if that doesn’t work, they say topical analgesic balm is good for boils.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/