Baseball’s a funny game. You can face a team that you’re 16.5 games behind you in the standings and have a complete offensive meltdown, a disastrous night on the mound, and still sneak out sharing the best record in baseball. On a night when they were short five of their starters due to injury (Ramos, Desmond, Werth, LaRoche and Zimmerman), even facing a team as hapless and gutted as the Phillies, the Nationals were playing far below their weight.
In the third inning, already trailing by 4, Bryce Harper went to make an athletic catch instead of playing a Jimmy Rollins double off the wall, and gave up the first inside-the-park home run at Nationals Park this season, putting the lead out to six. Stephen Strasburg came up with a dud of an outing on the night, going just 4 IP, and surrendering 6 earned runs on 8 hits. He had just 3 strikeouts and allowed only one walk, but not once did we see the fireballer who was indomitable early in the year. At times, Strasburg looked frustrated, and since the All-Star Break, he has been: since the All-Star Break, he’s put up a 4.43 ERA in four starts, each time looking less and less in control.
This is the sort of start that makes the argument for abiding strictly by Strasburg’s innings limit and shutting him down, especially when you look at similar breakdowns for Jordan Zimmermann. Amanda Comak of the Times pointed out on Twitter the statistical breakdown here: Zimmermann before the ASB: 2.66 before, 4.47 after, Strasburg before the ASB: 2.82 before, 4.43 after. As solid as Zimmermann has been this season for the Nats, it’s hard to look at parallels like that and not be moved. Though Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo has been constant as the Northern Star that when Strasburg hits his limit he’s done for the year, many have called for Strasburg to remain active despite his recent surgery.
More than that, Strasburg has struggled with runners of late. Tonight he allowed Juan Pierre and Cliff Lee (yes, that Cliff Lee, the pitcher) to nab 3 bags against him without so much as a look. This is one place that Strasburg has yet to shine in his professional career. Strasburg’s seen 12 bases stolen against him this year so far, and seen just two be thrown out. Insofar as the Nationals have had a very rough year behind the plate, and that’s certainly up for discussion, the problem may not just lie with the Nationals’ ace, but it’s hard not to see a building trend. In his first 17 starts, just 3 bases were stolen against Strasburg. In 21 starts this season, that number rockets up to 12.
In the end, the Nationals dropped the game because they couldn’t touch Cliff Lee. Bryce Harper has continued his post-ASB slump (.171 BA, just 12-70) going 0-4 with a pair of Ks, and he certainly wasn’t the only one having a rough night at the plate. Mark DeRosa, in for Ryan Zimmermann (back spasms) had a regrettable evening at the plate with four strikeouts, and Danny Espinosa added a pair as well, also going 0-4 on the night.
The Nationals have two more against the Phillies Wednesday and Thursday and then four in a weekend series against the Marlins.