Strasburg Stumbles, Nats Bumped Off By Braves

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Now that Stephen Strasburg has made a full recovery from Tommy John surgery, all that’s left for fans of the Washington Nationals to hope for is that his starts in 2012 go a lot better than his start on Friday night, when Strasburg’s disastrous first inning turned out to be the difference in a 7-4 loss to the playoff-chasing Atlanta Braves (89-68).

The start was officially delayed by 14 minutes while the field was given extra time to recover from the day-long rains that soaked the District. Whether it was this minor disruption of routine or the generally damp and humid conditions that affected Strasburg is not clear. However, he had trouble locating the strike zone in a 38-pitch first inning, and when either his four-seam or two-seam fastball did find the zone, it was carted all over the Nationals Park outfield.

After Strasburg struck out Michael Bourn on a changeup to lead off the game, Martin Prado lined a single off the glove of Danny Espinosa. Chipper Jones followed by pulling a two-seam fastball into right field on a full count, sending Prado to third. Dan Uggla fisted another four-seam fastball into center field to score Prado, the game’s first run. After Brian McCann swung through a 97-mile-an-hour fastball, Freddie Freeman doubled Atlanta’s advantage by singling to right before Jack Wilson pulled a ground ball that should have gone straight into Ryan Zimmerman’s glove and ended the inning. However, the ball took a fat hop, nicked the heel of Zimmerman’s glove, and bounced to left field as Uggla crossed the plate to make it 3-0. Strasburg managed to retire Jason Heyward to end the inning, but the out came in the form of a 395-foot fly ball that drove Rick Ankiel to the warning track in dead center field and nearly ended the competitive portion of the game right then and there.

Strasburg retired 9 of the next 10 batters and exited after the 4th inning with the Nationals trailing 3-1 thanks to an RBI single by Wilson Ramos in the second inning. However, Washington’s middle relief let them down. In particular, Collin Balester, who relieved Strasburg, made his predecessor’s performance seem masterful. Davey Johnson, trying to prolong his team’s five-game winning streak, pulled Balester after three batters and brought in Atahualpa Severino, who allowed both of his inherited runners to score on a double by Uggla, who came around himself on an RBI double by McCann.

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To their credit, the Nats (76-80) chipped away at their 6-1 deficit, knocking Hudson (who was also struggling with the humidity) out of the game with two runs in the sixth before Jayson Werth cut the deficit to 6-4 with a long solo home run to left field in the bottom of the eighth. The home run was Werth’s 20th as a National and ensured that 2011 would be the fourth straight year that Werth would hit at least 20 home runs in a season, a small measure of statistical pride in what has generally been a nightmare season.

But whatever positive momentum they had left the Nationals in the top of the ninth, when Washington perpetrated one of the shoddiest, most inexcusable defensive plays ever seen by a team of professionals. It came with one out, Bourn on second, Jones at the plate and Henry Rodriguez on the mound. Jones tapped a ground ball back to the hill. Rodriguez gloved it and immediately sprinted toward second, where Bourn appeared trapped off the bag. When the baserunner feinted toward second base, Rodriguez tossed the ball to shortstop Ian Desmond. Bourn broke for third and Desmond threw the ball to Zimmerman, who dropped it.

Bourn gratefully scampered back to second, only to find himself face-to-face with Jones, who had kept running while all this was going on. Jones retreated back toward first base, no doubt in the vague hope that what followed would actually happen. Having retrieved the ball, Zimmerman raced halfway across the diamond before throwing the ball to Chris Marrero, who tossed the ball to Espinosa, who finally ran down Jones and tagged him for the second out. Meanwhile, the catcher Ramos had gone to back up the play at third, while Rodriguez squatted on his haunches in the infield and was as much a part of the action as any spectator (which is to say, not at all).

With home plate unguarded, Bourn raced home for the Braves’ seventh run. The many Atlanta fans in the park erupted, the Nationals fans groaned in resigned anger, and Rodriguez, whose decision to shirk the simple out at first started the whole mess, was left with his head in his hands. It was a fitting end to a real mess of an evening.

Samuel Chamberlain

Samuel Chamberlain is a veteran of the writing process in much the same way that Elgin Baylor was a veteran of the NBA’s lottery process. A native of Manchester, NH and a 2010 graduate of New York University, Sam has covered the newspaper business for Editor & Publisher magazine and the Boston Red Sox for the Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. Until March of 2011, Sam was part of the sports team at TBD.com, where he covered, well, pretty much everything.

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