From the very beginning Tuesday, everything seemed wrong for Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals. A botched pop-up to start the game. A sudden rainstorm that frustrated the pitcher and forced a brief first-inning delay. A murky mishap with a balm that apparently brought some unwelcome heat.
"Not an ideal way to start," manager Davey Johnson said after the 6-1 loss to the San Diego Padres. "All kinds of little things going against us."
Fidgety from the start, Strasburg spent much of the first inning simply trying to get a grip on the ball. He wiped his fingers on the front of his pants, then the back. He went to the rosin bag several times — a mostly futile gesture as it, too, was soaked in the quick-hitting downpour that arrived shortly after the first pitch.
Strasburg also was troubled by what Johnson referred to as "hot stuff" that had been "misplaced." The manager mentioned it more than once following the game but didn't do much to elaborate, other than to indicate that a heating balm — commonly used by athletes to soothe aching muscles — somehow migrated from Strasburg's shoulder to another locale that left him "uncomfortable to say the least."
While Icy Hot is perhaps the best-known such balm, Mueller Sports Medicine in fact makes an analgesic called Hot Stuff, which promises "deep penetrating heat" and is "not recommended for use on sensitive skin."
With plenty to be upset about as it was, Strasburg wanted no part of that line of inquiry following the game, waving away a Hot Stuff query by saying tersely he would "keep that in the clubhouse."
Unfortunately for him, Johnson already had brought it out, adding it to the list of obstacles Strasburg and the Nats were unable to overcome.
Start with the lazy pop fly from San Diego leadoff man Will Venable that fell untouched in left-center with Roger Bernadina (who said he should have made the play), Rick Ankiel and Ian Desmond looking on. The soft double looked harmless enough, but ended up precipitating a full-on meltdown as the skies opened up over Nationals Park.
A walk, a single and another walk left the bases loaded with two outs and .143-hitting catcher John Baker at the plate when the rain started coming down hard.
"I mean, the ball was absolutely drenched," Strasburg said. "I probably could've hurt somebody."
Home plate umpire Brian Gorman finally called for the tarp with a 3-2 count on Baker, but the grounds crew didn't even have time to unfurl it before the squall blew over. When Strasburg stepped back to the mound after the eight-minute rain delay, Baker bounced his first offering up the middle for a two-run single.
Strasburg soon escaped the inning, but he had thrown 39 pitches to eight batters and was in a 3-0 hole. When the Padres tacked on another in the third on James Darnell's second career homer, Strasburg was officially out of sorts.
It was only the second time in 25 major league starts he had allowed more than three earned runs (he gave up six Aug. 10, 2010 against the Marlins in his return from the disabled list). When Johnson pulled the plug on him after four innings and 81 pitches, Strasburg had failed to last at least six innings for the first time in eight starts this season.
"It was just tough conditions all around," Strasburg said. "But I'm not one to make excuses. It's just one of those games where you go out there and do your best to overcome the obstacles. Sometimes you just can't get out of it the way you want to."
Nor could Strasburg's teammates help him. They managed only Bryce Harper's second home run in as many games, a fifth-inning shot — marking the 10th time in those 25 starts for Strasburg that he has received one run or less in support.
Padres starter Anthony Bass got the credit for that, as he navigated eight innings with relative ease. The Nationals never sent more than four batters to the plate in an inning and saw two frames that began with promise end in double plays.
Too hot? Too wet? It was just a day for the Nats to forget.
"Things weren't right," said Johnson. "The stars weren't aligned or whatever."
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