CINCINNATI — When it comes to early series, during that period in the baseball season when it's far too soon to read much into results though still fun to try, the Washington Nationals' clash with the Cincinnati Reds was billed as one of the best.
That hype continued all the way into Sunday, when the rubber match between two of the National League's elite teams was to be decided by their aces. A pitcher's duel on a splendid spring afternoon by the banks of the Ohio River was in order.
What came out in the Nationals' 6-3 loss, though, was one of the worst starts of Stephen Strasburg's career.
It was defined not by his or Reds ace Johnny Cueto's dominance, but more by the mistakes that piled up. A location missed. A pitch left up. The decision of an infielder to attempt a play at the plate, instead of turning a double play, that turned a tight contest into an uphill battle for the Nationals.
"That was a tough ballgame," said manager Davey Johnson, who left himself open for questioning when he allowed Strasburg to throw 34 more pitches Sunday, a day he battled his command, than the pitcher did in his Opening Day masterpiece.
"They've got a bunch of good hitters and Stras threw the ball all right. But he didn't hit his spots when he needed to. It cost us."
Over the course of 5 1/3 innings, the Nationals' right-hander showed flashes of the force he is, and can be. The Reds did not overpower him or expose him. Between the first and the sixth innings, they hardly even hit him. Three of their nine hits never left the infield. Only one went for extra bases.
"He gets a little frustrated giving up a lot of soft contact," catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "Spins, bounces, some hits, broken bat stuff, didn't really go our way today. All he can really do is make quality pitches and create soft contact early in the count. That's what he did."
Infield singles. Broken bats. A ball just out of reach. It all piled up on Strasburg in a three-run first inning and a three-run sixth. And when he got into trouble, the Reds made him pay.
Jay Bruce laced a bases-loaded double to left field in the first, before Strasburg hardly had time to settle himself in. Still, the Nationals made that hiccup irrelevant with Suzuki crushing a three-run homer no more than 10 minutes later.
"I think I learned a lot out there today while things were going good," Strasburg said. "Especially after I made the adjustment the first couple innings. I threw a lot more strike one. ... Some days, you're going to give up a lot of singles, and when they all get on base, they seem to come up with clutch singles. You've just got to tip your cap and move forward."
But Strasburg's day was defined later, perhaps by the decision of his manager to stick with him, calling Strasburg "my horse" in explaining his decision. With his pitch count at 92, Strasburg surrendered back-to-back singles to open the sixth. The Nationals pulled the infield in with runners on the corners. Xavier Paul hit a hard ground ball to second baseman Danny Espinosa.
Espinosa chose to throw home, attempting to get speedy rookie Derrick Robinson for the first out and keep a tie game intact. Shortstop Ian Desmond chastised himself for not screaming out "Two, two!" to Espinosa. Suzuki, who acknowledged he was not in the best position for the play, grabbed Espinosa's throw on the first base side and swept the tag across the plate late.
Robinson was safe. Strasburg threw 114 pitches and allowed the most base runners of his short but illustrious career.
"That's the decision I made," Espinosa said. "The way I thought was, 'Slow roller, I'm not getting Robinson at home. He's too fast. One out and a hard-hit ground ball, I turn two. Hard-hit ball right there, I'm going to try to go [home].
"It was my misunderstanding of why we're playing halfway. I thought the reason we were playing halfway was to try and cut that run."
The inning continued to spiral. The Reds, who rapped out 43 hits against Nationals' pitchers this series, pushed the game further out of reach. The Nationals' offense couldn't make up for it.
It was the Nationals' first series loss of the season. It came 20 days sooner than their first series loss in 2012.
"We didn't play our best, by no means," Desmond said. "And we were right there with them. I think when we go back to D.C. and we play them again, it's going to be a good series."
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