ATLANTA — Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson is used to seeing Stephen Strasburg shake out his right arm. He does it often during his starts, whether to stay loose or rid his hand of a little extra sweat.
But what he saw on Monday night concerned the 70-year-old manager.
Strasburg, who pitched six innings and allowed two runs in the Nationals’ 3-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves on Monday night, was shaking his arm more than usual. He looked uncomfortable on the mound most of the night, and his command was lacking. Despite a sixth inning in which he appeared dominant for the first time all evening, Johnson pulled him before the seventh.
And then his concern over what might be going on with his ace overshadowed the outcome of the Nationals’ 26th game of the season.
“He’s got a little tightness, I think in his forearm,” Johnson said. “So they’re going to put him on some medication.
“He was still throwing good but his command was way off so I knew something was off. He didn’t complain about anything. He was irritable, but he can be irritable during a ballgame. I was overly concerned and probably any other time I might’ve let him continue, but not with what I was seeing today. Hopefully it’s nothing more than maybe a little tired arm or something.”
Johnson said it was too soon to tell if Strasburg’s next start, which is slated for Saturday in Pittsburgh, is in jeopardy. But the right-hander did not hesitate.
“I’m not missing my next start,” Strasburg said. “I’ll tell you right now.”
Strasburg, who did not directly answer any questions about whether or not his forearm was tight or bothering him, struggled with his command almost from the first pitch he threw on Monday night. He sent catcher Kurt Suzuki diving for several balls in the first at-bat of the game and even hit home plate umpire Laz Diaz with one as he walked leadoff man Jordan Schafer.
That would become a running theme. Strasburg walked Schafer three times, and he walked a total of four batters on the night with another leadoff walk to Freddie Freeman in the fourth. Right-hander Tyler Clippard, who relieved Strasburg in the seventh, followed the same pattern. He walked catcher Gerald Laird to open the inning and two batters later the Braves had what would stand as the winning run.
Ultimately all three runners who scored for the Braves reached base on a walk from a Nationals pitcher and scored on what might’ve otherwise been harmless singles.
“I couldn’t throw strikes early on,” Strasburg said. “I felt good out there today. Just battling through commanding the fastball, commanding offspeed, it was just one of those days… I smoked the umpire on the first AB. You don’t want to go out there and do that.”
“I think he pitched well,” Suzuki said. “His fastball command wasn’t where he would want it but overall the results were pretty good.”
Suzuki, who was part of what appeared to be a vocal mound meeting by pitching coach Steve McCatty in the fifth inning, said Strasburg did not say anything about any arm issues.
“You could see a little bit, shaking his arm a little bit,” Suzuki said. “But Stras is not going to say anything. He’s going to go out there and compete. The last pitch he threw was 97 mph so he looked like he was fine.”
Indeed, Strasburg struck out the side in the sixth inning, his only 1-2-3 inning of work all night, and he hit 97 mph on the radar gun on his final two pitches to B.J. Upton — a called strike and a swinging strike — so whatever the issue was or may be, it did not appear to affect his velocity.
“I felt like I was getting on top of the ball and driving it down in the zone,” Strasburg said of the sixth inning. “When I get that feeling all my pitches kind of fall into place.”
But it appeared to be a feeling that also escaped him for much of the night.
The Braves scored once in the first inning and threatened for more, bringing Strasburg’s ERA in the first inning this season to 10.50. They added another in the second, tying the Nationals after they’d taken a two-run lead in the second via four straight singles from Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond, Chad Tracy and Kurt Suzuki.
The Nationals, too, threatened for more. And they left six runners on base in the process, coming up empty a handful of times and failing to put a runner on base once starter Julio Teheran was pulled from the game in the sixth.
The Nationals lost their fourth of four games to the Braves. They fell back to .500 at 13-13. They said all the right things after the game, again noting that it was early and still April, and that they had three more games here this week with which to make an impact.
“We just haven’t played very good against them,” said right fielder Jayson Werth, who fouled a ball off his left ankle in the eighth inning and was dealing with hamstring cramps. “Kind of beat ourselves. And they’ve played good… They’ve played good enough to win the games. We’ve played bad enough to lose. It’ll turn around. I still believe in our club and think we got the best team. Time will tell.”
“You’ve just got to wake up tomorrow and know we’ve got to win the next (three) games,” Clippard said. “And by Thursday, all is good.”
But there was enough concern, at least from the manager’s office, over what might be ailing Strasburg that, for at least one night, the loss became secondary.
“That overrides everything,” Johnson said. “I’m sure he’s going to be examined every which way you look at.
“Hopefully he’s going to be all right. We’ll just have to wait and see. “