NEW YORK — It was billed as a pitcher’s duel. Young ace against young ace.
But it quickly devolved into something very different for Stephen Strasburg and the Nationals. In his brief career that’s been filled with moments of brilliance, Strasburg has been hyped, praised and often showered with cheers.
Friday night, under a misty sky at Citi Field and in the midst of the Nationals’ 7-1 loss to the New York Mets, he was taunted.
As Matt Harvey was nearing the completion of his seven strong innings that featured only four hits, Strasburg was sandwiching solo home runs around an out in the sixth inning. A two-run Mets advantage became a four-run one. And the Mets fans wanted Strasburg to know, in their opinion, exactly why that was.
“Harvey’s better!” They shouted at the Nationals’ preternatural ace, their words cascading down on a field in which little had gone right for the Nationals and wouldn’t for the balance of the game. “Harvey’s better!”
When it was over, when Strasburg had taken the loss in a third straight game, he assessed his own performance bluntly.
“Not good enough,” Strasburg said of his six innings of work, done in front of Dwight Gooden himself, that bookended two-run innings around four scoreless.
His words could’ve easily described how the Nationals’ inconsistent play early this season has measured up to their pre-season hype.
“I think we’ve got a lot of improving to do, all the way around,” said third baseman Chad Tracy, who played in place of Ryan Zimmerman as he nursed a sore left hamstring. “But I think any time you ask a player they’re going to tell you that you can always improve. Our ceiling is really high and hopefully everybody maxes that ceiling out to their talent level.”
For Strasburg, though, he shook his head at the trend. Three starts in which he hasn’t been able to come away feeling as though he was at the top of his game. A top, which he’s shown so many times, that can be as good as any in the sport.
“It was kind of a struggle again,” he said.
That struggle began immediately. A hard bouncing ground ball off the bat of leadoff hitter Jordany Valdespin made its way toward Ian Desmond in the first inning but the shortstop couldn’t field it cleanly. “Booted it, simple as that,” he said of his sixth error of the season.
Valdespin and David Murphy, who followed with a base hit to right field, gave the Mets their first two runs.
Ike Davis and Lucas Duda, who would similarly torment Drew Storen in the eighth, combined for 865 feet of home runs in the sixth. Then the taunting began.
“He was just missing all night,” said manager Davey Johnson. The manager, though, focused most of his post-game lament on the Nationals’ missed opportunities, including loading the bases with no outs on Harvey in the seventh inning, with one run already home, and coming away with nothing more.
“I think the biggest thing is that I’m not having good enough feel early on to go out there and just let it eat and get through some quick innings to get deep into the ballgame,” Strasburg said. “That seems to be the case the last few starts. Just not throwing enough strikes early. It’s kind of shooting myself in the foot.”
But while Strasburg had his moments of difficulty, Harvey dominated.
He pumped a 99-mph fastball by Denard Span in the first inning, but mixed his overwhelming fastball with a slider and a changeup all night. He rarely threw the same pitch in an at-bat, keeping the Nationals’ hitters off-balance and out of sync for the majority of the night. When he needed a strikeout, of which he had seven, he turned to his high, rising fastball. The Nationals couldn’t lay off it.
“He pitches up there with a purpose,” Tracy said.”He’s trying to make it look good to us but his ball kind of takes off at the end. Right when you think you’re on it, it’s gone.”
The Nationals lone hit until the sixth inning was off the bat of their pitcher, a double that sliced down the right field line. And despite their opportunity to pull back into the game in the seventh, when hits from Desmond and Tracy were followed by Steve Lombardozzi reaching on a fielder’s choice and an error to load the bases, they were left unfulfilled.
In a duel of aces that is likely to be repeated more than once this season, round one went to the 24-year-old with New York across his chest.
“It’s funny because you guys want to make like a big deal out of all this but every game is huge for me,” Strasburg said of facing off with Harvey. “I want to go out there I want to help this team win. It doesn’t matter who’s facing us. We’re all out there as a collective group to try and get the job done. We weren’t able to do that tonight. we’ve got another game tomorrow. Hopefully (Gio Gonzalez) can go out there and shut the door and get the bats going and win the series.”
With the loss, the Nationals fell to 9-7 on the young season. And they know they have more talent than they’ve shown.
“I know we keep saying it’s still early, but it really is,” Tracy said. “It’s really early. Guys are still going to keep getting better. That’s why we play 162 because the talent will finally show up and the cream will rise to the top.
“Hopefully at the end of this thing we’ll be sitting at the top.”