The moment that the Washington Nationals’ weeklong parade of winning came to a halt in a 8-2 loss to the Chicago Cubs came quickly — and seemingly without warning.
First came the error. Then, the meltdown.
A brilliant start to the game sent a murmur through the crowd. The home team was on a roll, coming off five straight wins. Their ace, Stephen Strasburg, stood on the mound looking to further distance himself from an inconsistent start to the season, and he’d allowed hardly a baserunner through four-plus innings. A tremendous defensive relay from Roger Bernadina and Danny Espinosa to cut down Luis Valbuena at third base brought him to within an out of sealing a fifth spotless frame.
But then it happened: an error. On a routine throw by third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.
It was Zimmerman’s sixth throwing error of the season, and when it occurred — the throw pulling first baseman Adam LaRoche off the bag as Wellington Castillo reached — Strasburg was making his way toward the dugout. It was the final moment he’d look like the force he was through the first four innings.
The downward spiral came immediately thereafter.
“He’s too good a pitcher to let adversity behind him let him down,” said manager Davey Johnson, who pulled Strasburg after the inning, only to see Zach Duke surrender four more runs in the sixth.
“(Strasburg’s) certainly capable of picking us up. It’s a team effort. And errors are a part of the game… It’s exacerbated when the pitcher doesn’t pick us up. (If the pitcher) makes a bad pitch, a guy runs it down. (If a fielder) makes a mistake, the pitcher bears down on the next guy.”
But Strasburg, quite simply, could not.
After the error, he issued a six-pitch walk to the Cubs’ No. 8 hitter, Darwin Barney, who entered the game batting .153. He got ahead of pitcher Edwin Jackson 0-2, fell behind 3-2, and then watched as Jackson lofted a fastball on the middle-outside part of the plate off the scoreboard in right center field for a two-run double.
The inning continued to devolve. And when it was over, Strasburg had failed to retire a single batter post-error. His body language changed. His shoulders began to slump with each walk, and each hit. He did not back up home plate on a two-run single up the middle. The final out happened when Anthony Rizzo was caught stealing by Wilson Ramos.
The Nationals’ ace walked slowly off the mound having thrown 42 pitches in the fifth inning alone, 26 of them after the error, and sitting at 95 total. The Cubs had four runs home.
His day, which began as perhaps his best of the season, was left in a smoldering heap.
“I feel like I’m going out there and pitching well,” Strasburg said. “It’s just not happening on the days I pitch right now. It’s all going to change. It’s still early and all I can do is just go out there and give everything I have every fifth day. Whatever happens, happens.”
“It’s frustrating,” Zimmerman said. “That obviously changed the momentum a little bit. I feel bad. You never want that to happen but it did. Unfortunately it was a big play in the game… We could care less about errors if it doesn’t really mess with the outcome of the game. But anytime it changes the outcome of the game, especially the momentum for Stephen, it’s terrible.”
Zimmerman’s error altered the course of Strasburg’s start, and his throwing miscues have been one of the Nationals’ biggest issues on the young season. But where the game itself changed was in how the right-hander responded. The contrast between his work before the error and after it was stark.
And the game, despite the efforts of shortstop Ian Desmond who turned in his second consecutive 3-for-4 performance and bits of offense elsewhere, was hardly a game after that.
“An error is, I guess, the equivalent of a walk,” Desmond said. “You’ve got your horse on the mound, who nobody should really get a hit off, and you (make) an error. It’s like giving a free base. It’s just like walking. We’ve got to pitch around those things. We’ve obviously got to play better defense. But it’s give and take.”
It was the Nationals’ first loss in more than a week, and they’ll still have the chance to take the series on Sunday afternoon.
But on this day, the focus seemed to remain elsewhere — on how one mistake didn’t have to lead to another. How it all could’ve been minimized.
“Where we needed (Strasburg) to pick us up, the air went out,” Johnson said. “It was unfortunate.”