MIAMI — Things were set up so perfectly for the Washington Nationals on Tuesday night. Sure they were trying to stop a losing streak, trying to return to the winning side of things they'd spent so much of the 2012 season on. But they had their ace on the mound against a team he'd dominated routinely in his career. It was a new day.
And then Stephen Strasburg got hit harder than he had all season. The Miami Marlins were ready for his inside fastballs, ready for his unvarying move to the plate. They were ready to attack him, and then run wild.
Strasburg refused to adjust.
In a 9-0 loss, the Nationals were handed their worst defeat of the season and their losing streak wore on. A loss that not only topped their largest margin of defeat this season by one run but extended their losing streak to five and kept their race for the pennant stuck inside a blast furnace with 34 games remaining in the season.
"All year we've been able to take a bad beating like tonight and come back and win a couple games and put it behind us," said first baseman Adam LaRoche, one of six Nationals starters that went hitless in a complete game effort by Ricky Nolasco.
"I can't say we have the highest of spirits. That just goes along with losing some games in a row. ... Anytime you start something like this, it's easy for people outside our clubhouse to think, 'Oh, here we go. Here's a big skid.' Hopefully, guys don't start buying into it and we're able to shake it off and come back out."
For what seemed sure to be the first time, they wore the look of defeat. By the fourth inning there was little chance they'd be making a game of things, let alone a comeback, as the beating the Marlins gave Strasburg continued. How bad was it? Manager Davey Johnson opened his post-game press conference saying: "The good news about that one is that it was only two and half hours."
The Marlins attacked Strasburg's fastballs but he still threw it 70 percent of the time. They tagged him for two runs on three hits in the first inning. Three runs on two hits, a walk and an error on second baseman Danny Espinosa in the third. One more run came home on two hits in the fourth and another in the fifth. They ran at will on him — even the less-than-speedy Carlos Lee — stealing bases mercilessly and with jumps so early Kurt Suzuki couldn't even muster a throw.
"I think (teams) want to come out and make a name for themselves off Stephen Strasburg," said shortstop Ian Desmond, who along with outfielder Michael Morse came through his first game since Wednesday without incident. "The guy's one of the best pitchers in the game, and they're not just going to lay down for him."
By the time it was over, it was the most runs Strasburg had ever allowed to cross the plate, though two of the seven he let in over five innings were unearned thanks to Espinosa's error. He struck out only three, though he did reclaim sole possession of the NL lead with 186 on the season.
"I didn't make the adjustment," Strasburg said, adding "I've got to do better than that," when it came to his lack of attention to baserunners.
"I just kept on trying to do the same thing and they were cheating (on the fastball) and they got me. Learn from it and just got to remember to trust my stuff. Next time out I've got to go out there and really just read what I see and pitch to it, basically."
But whether it was the early, unexpected hole — LaRoche said he was "shocked as anyone else" to see the Marlins hit Strasburg the way they did — or the fact that the Nationals' offense continued a brutal stretch in which they've averaged 1.2 runs per game since their last victory, there was no escape.
"We didn't really give Stephen much of a chance," Desmond said. "I think if we come out and score a couple runs early, not necessarily to jump out ahead but just to bring the game back within reach, I think he turns the page and the competitive juices start flowing a little more.
It was their fifth straight loss to match a season-long losing streak and, depending on the Braves' game on the west coast, possibly a game lost in their division lead.
"It's tough," Strasburg said. "Because you want to go out there and do it every time but I'm sure there's not a pitcher in the history of baseball who's gone out there and shoved every single time. I wanted to go out there and give it everything I had, which I thought I did. I struggled for pretty much the whole game and it's a big learning experience for me. I think I learned a lot from tonight. We've got to flush it and we've got to get back to playing our style of baseball."
"We've been a little banged up, and we faced some hot clubs," Johnson said. "I won't worry about it. It's just one ballgame. We got tomorrow."
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