Stephen Strasburg was rolling. Through four scoreless, the Washington Nationals' 24-year-old right-hander had retired 12 of 13 Chicago Cubs' batters on 53 pitches, 41 of them strikes. Strasburg surrendered a two-out single by Anthony Rizzo in the top of the fourth, but responded to the first runner of the game reaching base by carving up Alfonso Soriano and striking the outfielder out with a 2-2 curve for his seventh K in four dominant frames in which he was hitting the high 90s with his fastball while mixing in a devastating change and swing-and-miss curve. Cubs' right-hander Edwin Jackson matched the Nats' starter with 4.0 scoreless of his own and retired 12 of the first 13 Nationals' batters he faced, surrendering only an Ian Desmond double in the second.
The Nats' '09 no.1 overall pick got help from his defense as he recorded the first two outs of the fifth. Denard Span caught a line drive to center by Nate Schierholtz and Roger Bernadina picked up Luis Valbuena's one-out double in the right field corner and threw a strike to Danny Espinosa, whose relay throw to third beat Valbuena to the bag when he tried for a triple. Ryan Zimmerman made the tag for out no.2, but when Cubs' catcher Wellington Castillo grounded to third in the next at bat, the Nationals' third baseman misfired on the throw to Adam LaRoche at first and committed his sixth throwing error of the season. Strasburg was up to 69 pitches at that point, 16 pitches into the fifth. 10 of the 16 pitches were strikes.
Strasburg walked Darwin Barney in the at bat that followed the error, but got ahead 0-2 on the opposing pitcher before throwing three straight balls. With the count full, Strasburg threw Edwin Jackson a 96 mph heater knee-high outside and E-Jax crushed it for a two-out, two-run double to right that scored both the E and the walk in what was then a 2-0 game. The Nats' rattled right-hander issued his second walk of the game to David DeJesus in the next AB, after which he'd thrown 11 of 18 pitches after the error outside the zone. Starlin Castro singled to load the bases with two down, but Strasburg got up 0-2 on Anthony Rizzo.... before surrendering a high, bouncing chopper that got over the mound and through the infield to drive in two more runs. 4-0 Chicago.
A base running error by Rizzo ended the inning, but the 42 pitches Strasburg threw pushed him up to 95 overall, 64 strikes. 41 of 53 for strikes through four. 22 of 42 for strikes in the fifth. The Nats' starter's outing ended there. 5.0 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 7 Ks, 95 P, 64 S, 4/2 GO/FO. Zach Duke surrendered four in two-thirds of an inning of work in the sixth inning of what ended up an 8-2 win for Chicago.
Talking to reporters after the loss, Zimmerman expressed frustration about how costly the first of two errors he committed today had been. "Just a bad throw," the third baseman said. "It's frustrating. Stevie's throwing the ball well and has a heck of a game going and that obviously changed the momentum a little bit. So, you feel bad and you don't want that to ever happen, but it did and unfortunately it was a big play in the game."
When Davey Johnson met with the D.C. press corps after the game he found the sudden shift in momentum in the fifth hard to explain. "It was unfortunate," Johnson said, "That inning he threw 40 pitches? It's hard to explain. He's throwing good. Good stuff. Hitting his spots. And then just seemed to -- when we needed him to pick us up, he kind of -- the air went out."
"What did he throw 40 pitches that inning?" Johnson asked reporters.
Reporters said it was actually 42. Asked what went wrong, Johnson said he didn't know.
"He's too good a pitcher to let adversity behind him let him down," Johnson said. "He's certainly capable of picking us up when somebody else -- it's a team effort, you know, and errors are part of the game." Johnson said he would likely have a few words with his starter, but noted that pitching coach Steve McCatty had spoken to him about that sort of thing in the past. More frustrating was how Strasburg looked before the fifth.
"That's just what you want," Johnson explained, "I mean, he was doing the things he wanted. He was using all his pitches. I thought he was probably going to go the route. But after that kind of inning, I couldn't bring him back out." After he'd looked strong and thrown strikes early, Johnson continued, "It just looked like he started missing more. Wasn't as sharp."
The Nationals' 70-year-old skipper said he liked what he'd seen from Zimmerman recently, and though he committed a costly error, Johnson reiterated that it wasn't all on the Nats' third baseman. The error, however, "... is exacerbated when the pitcher doesn't pick us up. Then you think about the error. It's a team sport. [The pitcher] makes a bad pitch, a guy runs it down. Make a mistake, the pitcher bears down on the next guy." That's not how it went this afternoon, unfortunately.
"When you have something like that happen," Johnson said, "... a guy [Evan Gattis] hit a high fastball, from Atlanta, after an error. It makes the fielder feel bad enough. Like I said, it's a team effort. You've got to bear down on the next guy and get him out. Pick us up."