DETROIT — The moment the Washington Nationals’ season slipped that much further from their grasp, Stephen Strasburg stood to the right of the mound at Comerica Park, glove on his hip, gaze straight ahead. He signaled for another ball as four Detroit Tigers rounded the bases.
Strasburg had never given up a home run with more than one runner on base so, it was the first grand slam the right-hander had allowed in his career. The man who hit it, Tigers catcher Alex Avila, bats eighth in an exhausting lineup. He entered the night batting under .200, and he’d never before hit a grand slam.
As the two players crossed off the matching, but opposite, firsts, the Nationals’ watched another game fall off the calendar. Avila’s sixth-inning grand slam turned a tie ballgame into a 5-1 Tigers victory, with former National League East foe Anibal Sanchez continuing his master of the Nationals bats. And 800 miles to the south the Atlanta Braves poured it on in an 11-3 beating of the Colorado Rockies.
The Nationals’ strived to talk about the positives.
They focused on the 97 pitches Strasburg threw that didn’t wind up in the seats, some of them so dominant manager Davey Johnson thought his right-hander just might pitch nine for the first time in his career. They talked about the faith they had that their offense could come through late, despite being down four runs, even though they ultimately didn’t.
“In this game you’ve just got to keep making progress,” said shortstop Ian Desmond. “I know it’s an out, but (Wilson Ramos) hits that ball 412 feet to dead center in a four-run game. I’m not saying that if that ball goes out we win the game, but that’s a positive sign.
“We hit a couple balls hard that inning and we didn’t win, but we didn’t fold, either, so that’s good.”
There was that long out, part of the rotten luck Ramos had all night — smoking balls down the left field and right field lines and getting robbed by Tigers fielders — and a handful of other “That’s baseball” moments for the Nationals’ batters.
There was Strasburg, exploiting an outside strike to right-handers with his fastball and dropping in a curveball that was buckling the knees of some of the best Tigers’ hitters.
He sent veteran Torii Hunter back to the dugout shaking his head three times with two swinging strikeouts and one looking. He struck out Austin Jackson twice and retired Miguel Cabrera on all but one occasion.
“He threw very well,” said Ramos. “It’s very hard when you see that kind of game. One pitch changed the game. I want to see that guy every time he’s on the mound. I want to see that guy like that… That’s what we want to see in him. He never put his head down. He kept fighting. It was just one pitch. It happens in the game. You have to keep fighting.”
“I pitched well, minus one pitch,” Strasburg said. “It’s tough. It’s baseball. I tried to throw a fastball away, and it came back over and he put a good swing on it. They’re obviously a really good hitting team. I thought the positive is, I told myself after it happened, ‘I’m not going to give in. I’m going to go out there and keep battling.’ And I was able to recover pretty well after that. The way it’s been going, I felt like there wasn’t much room for error.”
In the Nationals winding season of taking small positives from overall negatives, they were all correct. Strasburg did pitch well outside of the sixth inning. The Nationals did have chances off Sanchez. But outside of Ryan Zimmerman’s base hit scoring Bryce Harper after his game-opening triple, they didn’t cash them in.
They continued to score hardly any runs for Strasburg — for the 29th time in 107 games this season, the Nationals scored one run or fewer — and they’re averaging just 2.71 runs in games Strasburg starts. The Nationals are 7-13 when he’s on the mound.
“I pitch once every five days,” Strasburg said, asked if the team could sense time getting short. “I give it everything I’ve got the day I pitch. And if it doesn’t turn out the way you hope, then you do your best to learn from it and get them the next time.”
The reality remained. The Nationals are 10 games behind the Braves in the National League East. Johnson has often taken to closing his post-game press conferences with a reminder: “Tomorrow,” he says, “is another day.” He said that Tuesday night, even though the Nationals only have so many tomorrow’s left.
As the Nationals filed back into the visitors’ clubhouse, a national reporter tweeted out the Braves’ magic number to clinch the NL East. It was calculated at 46.
“You have to fight,” Ramos said. “You have to try to win the games we’ve got left. I know it’s hard, but we’ve got a pretty good team. We can win.”
“I really couldn’t care less what the Braves do,” said Desmond. “We’re (three) games under .500. We’ve got to worry about ourselves. That’s first and foremost and then the rest will take care of itself.”