MIAMI — The grinding nature of the baseball schedule, the unrelenting call to perform game after game from April through October, is part of what separates it from other sports. It is not a game that rewards the talented merely for their ability. Often it is consistency that is praised above all else; the ability to showcase that talent again, and again, and again as the season wears on.
It’s also a sport that forgives, perhaps more than most, an off day. It’s expected, even. No player thinks they’ll get a hit in every game. No pitcher presumes the outs will come easily each time they take the mound.
But greatness often spoils us, too. It puts the struggles of those we expect near perfection and consistency from in stark contrast to their successes.
It makes nights like Stephen Strasburg’s on Friday in the Washington Nationals’ 8-3 loss to the Miami Marlins — a debacle of a game in which Strasburg lasted just two innings, allowed a career-high seven earned runs, walked four batters and was pulled after throwing only half of his 66 pitches for strikes — that much more jarring.
“I guess he’s entitled to one bad one but it just was a tough time,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, whose team lost for the fourth time in the last five games. “It can happen to anybody but it’s kind of remarkable to happen to him.”
“The only thing I can say is he had a bad day,” said catcher Wilson Ramos. “Today was a bad day for him. That’s baseball. You have bad days and good days. (It) happens.”
Earlier in the afternoon, with the news that teammate Jordan Zimmermann would still attend but not pitch in the 2013 All-Star Game due to a lingering neck issue, Strasburg’s name seemed high on a speculative list of possible replacements.
Perhaps because of his stint on the disabled list with a lat strain, or his low win total due largely to putrid run support, Strasburg was overlooked when it came to the All-Star selections. In a way, it seemed, he could make his final start before the break the last line on an already-compelling resume for Bruce Bochy to consider.
And the Nationals’ offense tried to give him the breathing room to do it from the outset.
Among the league’s least-supported pitchers this season, Strasburg was actually given three runs before he even stepped out of the dugout. But the Nationals, despite stinging a few balls to the deepest parts of Marlins Park, would never score again.
“When you get off to a good start and then all of a sudden you give back five runs it can take the air out of the tires pretty quick,” Johnson said.
Strasburg opened the first inning with three walks sandwiched around an out. He followed them with a bases-loaded triple. It took him 10 batters, and 36 pitches, to get three outs. By the time he did, the Marlins had erased that early lead and replaced it with a 5-3 advantage of their own.
He opened the second inning with yet another walk. Giancarlo Stanton’s ninth home run of the season immediately followed.
“For me, right now, he’s thinking too much,” Ramos said. “He just has to go out there and throw his pitches. First inning, he walked one guy and he had his head down. I don’t like to see that… I was trying to tell him, ‘Nice and easy. Don’t be mad.’ Because every time he is out there and he feels mad or angry, he wants to throw too much. Trying to do too much.”
The Nationals could hardly digest what had transpired in front of them.
“I don’t think anybody in the ballpark saw it going that way,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche, who drove in the Nationals’ first two runs with a first-inning double.
“We jump out on top, get a pretty good roll going, and to come back and give it away, that’s tough. That’s a lineup that typically doesn’t score a lot of runs going against one of the best pitchers in the game. To jump on him like that is pretty wild.”
Seeing the line attached to Strasburg’s name seemed foreign, as if it had to be a mistake. To put into context how good the right-hander has been this season, and especially of late, Friday’s meltdown raised his ERA 54 points. It was still only 2.99 at night’s end.
But Friday was the first time in his career Strasburg had ever allowed seven earned runs in a start. It was the shortest non-injury start of his career. It was the lowest strike rate, 50 percent, he’d ever posted.
Statistically speaking, it was his worst start in the major leagues.
“I just didn’t throw a strike,” he said. “It’s frustrating.”
Johnson and Strasburg seemed to agree that his struggles stemmed largely from mechanical issues he simply could not fix before it was too late.
“I think I was too open to home plate to start and that kind of messed everything up from there and caused me to fly open even more,” said Strasburg. “It’s happened to me plenty of times. That’s my thing. If I fall off to the first base side too much then everything gets out of whack. I’ve been battling through it the last couple starts, been able to make the adjustments, and tonight I just couldn’t do that.”
Now, just like so many of his teammates who have admitted to missed opportunities this season, Strasburg will have at least a week to stew over his final start of the first half.
“I think you’re always trying to learn,” he said. “I think it’s these type of games where you’ve got nothing working that you can just kind of take a step back. Just pick it apart a little bit, and see your flaws a little bit more.”