The Nationals were looking for a strong outing from Stephen Strasburg during the finale of the last series they played with the Milwaukee Brewers during Washington's trip to Miller Park in late June. The previous night's sixteen-inning marathon of a game left the Nats' bullpen depleted, but they'd outlasted the Brewers and set themselves up with an opportunity for a three-game sweep of the NL Central's first-place team.
Strasburg was in the midst of a rough stretch of starts, however, in which he gave up seven earned runs (4.97 ERA) in 12 ⅔ innings on the mound in back-to-back outings against the Cardinals and Braves in which he allowed opposing hitters to put up a .302/.315/.509 line against him.
It didn't go much better against the Brewers.
The Nationals' 25-year-old right-hander gave up eight hits, three walks and seven runs in just 4 ⅔ IP before manager Matt Williams turned to his beleaguered bullpen.
"I don't know if it was fastball command so much today," Williams told reporters after the loss. "But his changeup wasn't as good today so he couldn't go to it. He was missing with that and he got behind in the count, they took advantage. This team swings at fastballs and they hit them. And if you get behind, you can get in trouble."
Strasburg told reporters that his mechanics were off and though he wasn't sure what the issue was, something was "not right" as he explained it.
"The key for Stephen is going to be to continue to have fastball command early," Williams said, "be able to throw his breaking balls for strikes and use the changeup off of that and today it was a little backwards and he got one up in the zone and they hit it."
The next time out, Strasburg bounced back with a strong start against the Colorado Rockies in which he threw 7 ⅔ scoreless before giving up a solo home run. After throwing 90 pitches in 4 ⅔ in Milwaukee, he got through seven-plus innings on 111 pitches.
"I think strike one is probably the biggest difference," Matt Williams told reporters after the Nationals' 7-1 win in the nation's capital.
"Got ahead of a lot of hitters tonight. His curveball was effective, his changeup was effective, went deep in the game. He threw a lot of pitches, but he was in command. I think that's the biggest difference. He didn't fall behind guys. And for him, that's important. It's important for everybody, but especially for him."
The start against the Rockies was the first of three strong outings that ended the first half of the season for Strasburg, in which he put up a 2.21 ERA in 20 ⅓ IP, holding opposing hitters to a .213/.244/.320 line.
He held the Orioles to four hits and two earned runs in seven innings in Nationals Park the next time out, then held the Phillies to seven hits and two earned runs in 5 ⅔ IP Citizens Bank Park in his final start before the All-Star Break.
He received no decision in either of those outings though, so the first half of the 2009 no.1 overall pick's fifth MLB season ended with Strasburg (7-6) with a 3.46 ERA, 2.72 FIP, 26 walks (1.87 BB/9) and 149 Ks (10.73 K/9) in 20 starts and 125 IP.
The first start of the so-called second-half tonight gives Strasburg another shot at the Brewers, who come into the series in Washington, D.C. having dropped 11 of their last 13 games.
Before the last head-to-head matchup, Milwaukee was on a run, having won six of seven on a road trip that led into the meeting of the NL East and Central's division leaders. While the Brewers are just 25-24 at home this season, they're 28-19 outside of Miller Park.
They're facing Strasburg in the nation's capital, however, where he's 6-1 with a 2.38 ERA and a .239/278/.336 line against, as opposed to his 1-5 record, 4.92 ERA and .290/.335/.459 line against away from home in the first half.
Will Strasburg have his revenge on the Brewers tonight?