These are the nights Stephen Strasburg will probably most like to forget. Over the course of what's expected to be an illustrious career filled with jaw-dropping highlights, these won't be the games the Washington Nationals' ace looks back at to remember.
Nights like he had in an 8-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday — four innings, six earned runs, eight hits, one walk — that had a lackluster and forgettable tone set early on. The nights when he's not the dominant force of nature that makes his starts appointment viewing. When he's kicking the dirt on the mound and slamming his right hand into his thigh in frustration as he watches another hit drop or another call go against his wishes.
"He was fighting himself," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson who, when asked what went wrong for his right-hander opened his answer with "A lot."
"Just a young pitcher," he said. "Lost a little poise. It's part of growing up."
Therein, of course, is the seemingly unsolvable riddle of Strasburg's 2012 season. Whether it's the fact that he's still in his first full season after Tommy John surgery or that he's a 24-year-old pitcher who has made exactly 38 starts in the major leagues, there are good outings — phenomenal ones, actually — and then there are starts like Tuesday's at Nationals Park.
His pitches were elevated, his control was lacking. His body language did nothing to hide the way he felt when a ball fell in or a play behind him wasn't completed.
He appeared rattled by baserunners. Flustered by a two-run home run by Kevin Frandsen in the second inning. And utterly flummoxed two innings later when Jimmy Rollins rounded the bases on a two-run, inside-the-park homer that sent Bryce Harper crashing into the right field fence and provided the cap on a six-run hole far too deep for an offense that was powerless against Cliff Lee.
"He's always been an emotional guy," said catcher Jesus Flores, who watched Juan Pierre steal second, third and score on his throwing error in the third — followed by Lee stealing an inning later. He also lamented the Nationals' inability to hold baserunners largely because their pitchers pay them little attention.
"After the homer, he kind of started forcing himself to make perfect pitches," Flores said. "But it seemed like it didn't work out. I think we didn't play very good tonight, either."
The six earned runs tied Strasburg's career-high in the big leagues.
"I threw one fastball down the way I wanted to," Strasburg said. "And it was the first pitch of the game. Other than that, everything was up."
Neither Strasburg nor Johnson would use his Tommy John surgery as an excuse for the inconsistent nature of his second-half starts. Neither gave in to the idea that pitchers returning from the procedure generally go through ups and downs the way Strasburg has this year.
In 2011, Jordan Zimmermann, who had his own surgery almost exactly a year before Strasburg, fit the bill. And in the first half of that season Zimmermann had a 2.66 ERA. After the All-Star break, that number was 4.47. Before the All-Star break, Strasburg had a 2.82 ERA. Since, it's jumped to 4.43. He is entirely dominant some nights, the Strasburg who showed up in New York in his last start six days ago, and eminently hittable in others.
"I'm not blaming it on having Tommy John," Strasburg said. "It happens to everybody. I'm just going to forget about it and make the adjustments. It has nothing to do with coming off Tommy John. That's over two years now. I was just flying open a little bit and that was causing my ball to get flat and be up in the zone."
The result was a loss in a game the Nationals should have won on paper. Facing a Phillies team that was partly dismantled earlier in the day, losing Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence in trades, the Nationals' offense (missing Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche) was baffled by Lee, who allowed five hits and struck out seven in seven innings.
The result was the loss of a game in the standings to the Atlanta Braves, who inched to within 2 ½ of the division-leaders, though the Nats are still 20 games over .500 at 61-41.
Two starts ago, Strasburg allowed four earned runs on eight hits and was chased after 5 ⅓ innings by the Braves. The next time out he fired seven innings and allowed just one run. His next start is on Sunday.
"You can't worry about what you did last time," Strasburg said. "It's in the books. That's what I've got to do now, keep moving forward and get back to work tomorrow."
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