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Strasburg, Nats can’t finish it off

May 25, 2014, 12:21 AM EST

AP AP

PITTSBURGH — Stephen Strasburg wants to be the guy on the mound trying to pitch his way out of jams in huge spots late in ballgames. The Nationals want Strasburg to be the guy on the mound trying to pitch his way out of jams in huge spots late in ballgames.

So it was that the young right-hander stood in the center of the diamond Saturday night at PNC Park, the go-ahead runner in scoring position with the Nationals and Pirates deadlocked at 2-2 moments after Strasburg had allowed the tying run on a sacrifice fly.

At the plate was the .214-hitting Travis Snider. In the bullpen was Jerry Blevins, ready to face the left-handed Snider if needed. Strasburg, though, remained on the mound. He threw two changeups in the dirt, then two pitch-outs to intentionally walk Snider and leave runners on first and second with two outs.

Next up to the plate was Josh Harrison, 10 for his last 30 and sporting a .293 batting average. In the bullpen was Drew Storen, who has held right-handed hitters to a .156 average and was ready to face Harrison if needed.

Strasburg again remained on the mound, sitting on 108 pitches, the game hanging in the balance.

“He’s our ace,” manager Matt Williams said. “He deserves a chance to get out of that.”

Strasburg’s first pitch to Harrison was a 95-mph fastball at the knees. Plate umpire Gabe Morales called it a ball, though MLB’s official Pitch F/X tracker would later show it should have been a strike. Strasburg’s second pitch was a changeup, well below the knees. Harrison reached down and smacked it back up the middle. Starling Marte came barreling around third to score, and though Denard Span threw out the trailing runner, Marte had already crossed the plate to give the Pirates what proved to be the decisive run in a 3-2 victory that left the Nationals shell-shocked.

“Hit it where we weren’t,” Strasburg said. “That’s baseball.”

Baseball hasn’t been very kind to the Nationals over the last four days. They’ve lost four straight games, all by one or two runs, scoring a total of seven runs along the way.

And as a result, this team now finds itself 24-25, sporting a sub-.500 record for the first time since Aug. 22, 2013.

“The thing about us is, we’re battling,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “There’s not too many games that we’re not in, especially when it becomes late in the game. So we’re playing good baseball. The results aren’t there, but I think as time goes on and we start getting healthier, we’ll be alright. But we definitely need to keep our heads above water right now until those guys get healthy.”

The Nationals will get one of their key injured stars back on Sunday when Adam LaRoche is activated after a minimum 15-day stint on the disabled list. Rookie infielder Zach Walters was optioned to Class AAA Syracuse after Saturday’s loss to make room for the veteran cleanup hitter.

But LaRoche alone isn’t going to solve the Nationals’ woes. They’ll still need others to produce clutch hits, something they couldn’t do Saturday night. Despite scoring a pair of early runs off Gerrit Cole, they squandered an opportunity to deliver a knockout punch to the young Pirates ace.

And if the lineup isn’t able to produce, the pitching staff is going to have to start locking down slim leads when give them.

The Nationals’ bullpen has been baseball’s best this season, entering this game with a collective 2.13 ERA. Strasburg, though, was pitching a gem and outdueling his fellow No. 1 overall draft pick for most of the night when things started to spiral downward in the bottom of the seventh.

He took the mound holding a 2-1 lead, his pitch count at 91, fully intended to toss a scoreless seventh. And perhaps even more.

“I’m going to go as long as I can,” he said. “Until they take the ball out of my hands.”

Russell Martin led off the seventh with a single to left, but Strasburg immediately answered by striking out Pedro Alvarez on a high fastball. But when Marte tagged a hanging curveball to right-center for a double, the situation suddenly felt much different.

Strasburg needed to get pinch-hitter Jose Tabata without letting the tying runner score from third. Tabata, meanwhile, recalled getting a couple of hits off Strasburg five years ago in the Arizona Fall League and went to the plate with confidence and a game plan.

“I remembered those at-bats from before and I told myself, ‘I know how he throws,’ ” Tabata said. “He threw me two fastballs in, and I thought he might come with a breaking ball. I stayed inside it and hit it in the air.”

Indeed, Tabata lined Strasburg’s curveball to center, right at Span but plenty deep to bring the tying run home. That set the stage for the critical moments of the game, with Williams making the decision to leave Strasburg in, pitch around Snider and go after Harrison.

“We were going to be careful there,” Williams said of the unintentional intentional walk to Snider. “He’d pitched well to Harrison all night. And we don’t want to get in a situation where he falls behind and has to throw a fastball to Snider. You just set up the force out. But unfortunately, [Harrison] got a base hit. That was a difference.”

“I think everybody felt good about him staying in there,” Werth said. “You like that matchup there. You’re giving him a chance to win the game. I thought he pitched great tonight. That’s the most pitches I’ve seen him throw in awhile. His velocity was good. It seemed like he was in control of the game. I like that matchup. I thought we were right where we needed to be. But the guy hit a good pitch.”

And so the Nationals find themselves in a position they never expected on the eve of Memorial Day. After keeping themselves afloat through injuries and inconsistent performances, they’re now officially underwater, owners of a losing record and desperate to right themselves before they sink altogether.

“It’s a long year,” Strasburg said. “I think it’s a good test. Not one guy in this clubhouse was expecting it to be easy from start to finish. We just got to maybe take a step back and maybe let the game come to us, not try and do too much. Just stay in your lane. Just do your job.”

  1. Eugene in Oregon - May 25, 2014 at 1:05 AM

    As a fan, I’m an optimist. I recognize that the Nats are playing shorthanded and that the return of Messrs. LaRoche, Zimmerman, and Harper should improve the offense significantly. And I suspect that the starting pitchers are pressing too much, knowing they have to be near perfect; if and as the scoring increases, that may have a positive impact on the pitchers. The season is far from over and I can still see a path to the post-season (albeit not as likely as I would have predicted in mid-April).

    But I’m also a realist and I recognize how poorly the Nats are playing right now — whatever the underlying reason might be. Just as I’m not real keen on the negative hyperbole, doom, and gloom we see here, I’m equally offended by someone trying to blow positive smoke up my a$$. So I’m borderlline (perhaps over the line) insulted by Jayson Werth saying: “There’s not too many games that we’re not in, especially when it becomes late in the game. So we’re playing good baseball.”

    No, the Nats are not playing good baseball, even if some of the games have been close. Neither the hitting nor the starting pitching — we’ll leave the fielding out of it for a moment — has been anywhere near good for the past several weeks. There may be valid explanations as to why the Nats aren’t living up to expectations/predictions. There may be causes for optimism. But please don’t tell me the baseball I’ve been watching is ‘good baseball’ — that’s as misguided and wrongheaded as the notion that the team needs to be blown up and recreated from scratch.

    • veejh - May 25, 2014 at 3:04 AM

      +1

      • knoxvillenat - May 25, 2014 at 8:36 AM

        +2

  2. bgbg32b - May 25, 2014 at 1:31 AM

    The Nats are dealing with a number of lingering issues – higher expectations, more pressure to win, teams wanting to beat them because SI and others pick them to win the World Series the past two years, etc.

    The team has shown it cannot handle the pressure. It needs to be in the darkhorse position it was in 2012 to play at its best.

    Fans need to lobby SI and other national media not to ever pick the Nats to win a World Series again.

    But the team also needs a vocal firebrand leader and at least one hitter the opposition fears like it had in 2012 in Morse. Werth could play that role but he seems to fall short. He doesnt seem to want to be a real leader and he is too inconsistent a hitter to be feared.

    Maybe the club needs to trade McLouth and someone else for a real longball threat like Morse or Nelson Cruz.

  3. Section 222 - May 25, 2014 at 1:42 AM

    The postgame radio show had an interview with Harrison. He said he had had a good AB his third time up against Stras and felt like he had seen all of his pitches. He was very conformed and just wanted to barrel something up. Note to MW, major league hitters are good. Just because your starter got them out the first few times doesn’t mean they can keep getting them out indefinitely. Especially if they have thrown over 100 pitches and just let the tying run come in. You wanted to give Stras a chance for the win, and instead you gave him the loss. Congrats. Or something.

    • Section 222 - May 25, 2014 at 1:42 AM

      Conformed = confident

    • veejh - May 25, 2014 at 3:08 AM

      If Stras pitches out of the jam, MWs a genius, tonight, they’re both dogs. Baseball!

      • wmlsays - May 25, 2014 at 5:07 AM

        Except that at this point in his career, Strasburg blows it more often than he should. That’s baseball too.

  4. bgbg32b - May 25, 2014 at 2:23 AM

    Here is the SI form to send a note to tell them not to pick the Nats again to win it all – http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/about_us/feedback/

    • snerdblurter - May 25, 2014 at 1:06 PM

      I don’t think you’ll have to worry about this if they repeat last year’s performance…

  5. wmlsays - May 25, 2014 at 5:18 AM

    By the time this season is over, Fister will probably be the ace. I don’t know why the Nats keep trying to make Strasburg their ace. He hasn’t been that since he got here. Yes, he’s a good pitcher, but he has never been their best pitcher.

  6. BombsOverNatsTown - May 25, 2014 at 6:23 AM

    Total lurker here. Read NI everyday, have posted only a handful of times. Really love the passion and devotion on display by regular posters in the comments section.

    I believe that this is a good baseball team. I also believe that, even when healthy, there isn’t a single player that strikes fear in the mind of an opposing manager.

    There isn’t a ridiculous bat like Mike (yes, Mike) Stanton that can routinely change a game on one swing. There isn’t a starter like Kershaw that is a true stopper, capable of going eight scoreless seemingly at will. There isn’t a bullpen arm like Craig Kimbrel that essentially makes the game one inning shorter than regulation.

    The Nats are a collection of nice pieces. But they seem little more than an ill-fitting jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t quite fit together. Think about it, which player on the roster could you reasonably argue is the best at his position in the National League. Maybe Desi?

    Without the “fear factor” on the roster (and ALR, Zimm, Harper, Gio don’t provide that either), they’re an 82-88 win ball club. Personally, I’ll take the above average team expectation and if the postseason comes with it, that’s gravy.

    Thanks for the forum to let me vent, Mark. Keep up your outstanding work.

    • NatsLady - May 25, 2014 at 6:30 AM

      I take your point and it’s well-made. But, to counter that, teams like the Giants and Red Sox were “collections of nice pieces” that somehow put the jigsaw puzzle together. They weren’t the Dodgers, Tigers (or Angels) with blinding star players. Some winning, some heroism from unexpected guys, some luck (!) would go a long way toward the Nats getting out of this funk.

      • BombsOverNatsTown - May 25, 2014 at 7:00 AM

        First, I particularly enjoy your posts NatsLady.

        You can probably throw the Cardinals on that list that you came up with as well. And I’m totally game for the “lightning in a bottle” theory. I can’t help but wonder if 2012 wasn’t that shot and the aberration. Maybe this is the rule and that magical season was the exception.

        Stras, Gio, JZimm and Fister are all solid 2/3 starters. Roark is a gutsy little dude. Maybe when the reinforcements get back, the bats get settled and stop pressing to be more than they are. Just trying to keep my own expectations tempered.

        It’s not a disaster, just a little disappointing given the hype. At least they’re not the Phillies.

      • NatsLady - May 25, 2014 at 7:10 AM

        Yes, I think this IS the rule. Your GM builds you an 85-88 win team on talent year after year, and lightening should strike. And yes, the Nats drastically “over performed” in 2012 compared to 2011, and teams that do that regress quite a lot the following year–I could give you a dozen examples. The trick is, as Rizzo says, to play meaningful ball in September. Get to the end of August still in it, and grind out the last month.

    • Rick - May 25, 2014 at 6:45 AM

      I agree with you. Even if the bats come alive a one run lead is not safe in the 9th with Soriano. We need a closer who demoralizes the opposition instead of one who gives them a ray of hope. A big stick to put fear into the hearts of other teams is absent as well.

      • Hiram Hover - May 25, 2014 at 8:30 AM

        a one run lead is not safe in the 9th with Soriano

        There are so many legitimate criticisms of this team right now–why do you bother with such an obvious falsehood?

        Soriano is 10-11 in save chances this season. In 19 total appearances, he gave up runs in only 1 of them.

      • Eugene in Oregon - May 25, 2014 at 9:12 AM

        Would that the Nats had a lead in the 9th that we could use to test your assertion…

  7. NatsLady - May 25, 2014 at 6:24 AM

    Werth is just being a team player. He can be out-spoken and funny, but he knows this isn’t the moment. I don’t bash him for supporting his teammates.

    They need to get ouf of the mindset that this-or-that player “deserves” a chance to win the game, “deserves” an at-bat, Give theTEAM the best opportunity to win the game. It’s Memorial Day, and no longer “early.” Take the training wheels off, we don’t have the luxury.

    • Hiram Hover - May 25, 2014 at 8:40 AM

      Oops – only read the first sentence of your comment before I posted mine below. I owe you one of those virtual drink thingies.

  8. philipd763 - May 25, 2014 at 6:47 AM

    5 hits in 9 innings. Let’s put the blame where is belongs…on the pathetic offense. When is the last time a home run was hit with a runner on base. This offense has been pathetic for two years; it’s nothing new and I doubt it changes if and when the injured players come back. Rizzo….wake up!

  9. Eric - May 25, 2014 at 8:31 AM

    Hey at least we have a steak going… Just happens to be the wrong kind ;).

    Still only 3.5 back… Pretty amazing.

  10. mauimo22 - May 25, 2014 at 8:34 AM

    The “Cerebral” Matt Williams outthinks himself again!
    Walk a .213 hitter to get to a .293 hitter???
    Just blow a few fastballs by him and snap a slider by to get the KO!
    There’s a lot to be said for “just playing ball” and not tinkering with things.
    Bottom line is gotta score 4+ runs to win in this league.
    I blame MW and the offense.
    Time to right this ship. Should not be losing to teams with losing records who are struggling.

  11. Hiram Hover - May 25, 2014 at 8:38 AM

    This team desperately needs wins right now.

    MW’s job is not to give an individual player a chance he “deserves” (a concept I don’t really buy anyway). His job is put the team in the best position to win.

    • Eugene in Oregon - May 25, 2014 at 9:13 AM

      +1

  12. IsawTeddywin - May 25, 2014 at 8:40 AM

    Oh well, at least we proved last nite that Barves are’t really that good.
    Now that we’re below .500, their record against >= . 500 plummeted to 11-16
    ; )

    • Nats Amore - May 25, 2014 at 9:30 AM

      I would never talk smack about a team that’s ahead of us in the standings. Play on the field speaks a lot louder, and I believe this team even sans Harper and Zim can compete in this division. Many teams would be thrilled to have the 1-6 slots in the ALR-augmented lineup of the Nats.

  13. natsjackinfl - May 25, 2014 at 9:00 AM

    While I’m frustrated like everybody else, I still think there is merit to what Jayson Werth says about battling and being in every game.

    This could and should bode well for when (and certainly if) the Nats roster gets to be healthy and the guys that are forced to be in the starting lineup now will be in their true role of coming off the bench.

    Dobbs has always been a favorite of mine and wasn’t DFA’d by the Marlins for his play. He was DFA’d because they are committed to their youth movement and he became an unnecessary luxury that wasn’t getting used and blocking potential development of younger players. And he wasn’t Latin which is why they are attempting to resurrect Miguel Tejada to assist in tutoring their young shortstop.

    No, I’m actually very happy that Rizzo has brought in McClouth, Fransden and Dobbs to provide the bench depth that, hopefully, will pay dividends in late July through the September push.

    It’s really up to the starting pitching staff to keep the team afloat and while they haven’t exactly been stellar, they are keeping the team in the games.

    • 3on2out - May 25, 2014 at 9:12 AM

      Well said Natsjack

    • Eric - May 25, 2014 at 9:31 AM

      +1 great post. I agree Werth’s comments are on point re: being in the games.

      I don’t agree with him that they’re playing good ball at the moment. If they were, they’d be winning more of these close ones.

      I do think Stras is on the brink of a break through. He has gotten off to a dominant start his last couple of outings, and maintained form through 6 1/3 yesterday.

      • Eric - May 25, 2014 at 9:35 AM

        Oh and +1 on the bench additions. I like Dobbs and especially Frandsen. I still have hope for McLouth, and I have been impressed at times by his ability to draw walks.

        All three, especially McLouth, have been pretty solid on D, too.

    • unkyd59 - May 25, 2014 at 10:11 AM

      +1, NJ… Werth absolutely brings leadership and authority to this team, but anybody who feels like they have to put the team on his back, for an extended time, will wind up pressing after awhile. I think there’ll come a time, after everybody has come off the DL, when the whole lineup will start hitting like they can, the team will put up 50+ runs one week, and I don’t think we’ll see a team-wide slump after that. No matter how brilliant your rotation is, knowing that leaving a single pitch up, can cost your team the win is enough to make you press. Scoring a couple in the early innings, consistently, and swinging for base hits with RISP, consistently, are the best ways to get this team humming, again, and that’s a tall order when you’re running 3-4 bench guys out there, every night.

      Two other points: even I am at the end of my rope, with Danny. This isn’t a player who doesn’t have the talent to be a great player, but one who (seemingly) refuses to take the nessecary approach to become one. If somebody would part with a bag of really clean, white balls, I would make that deal. I do not give up on talented players, but Danny makes me tired…

      The other point: please… I’m not a charter NI member, but I’ve a few years in here…. I’m not asking for Pollyannaism, but I’m not seeing ANY “GYFNG”, any more… One run losses are disinheartening, but look, we know what a hopeless situation looks like, and this is no hopeless situation… So let’s hope these guys can get to Liriano early, today, and that Fister, our new Stopper, can cruise…

      GYFNGOGOGO!!!!!

  14. Joe Seamhead - May 25, 2014 at 9:18 AM

    Sometimes a pitcher gets even stronger and digs down even deeper when they get late in games and see the complete game win is close. This was not the case last night. Stras was not getting stronger and it seemed obvious.. And what is this new mentality that because he is “our ace” that he is suddenly capable of throwing well over 100 pitches in a tight game? As Nats Lady said, you have arguably the best bullpen in baseball, use it. When it was still 2-1 I had visions that my heart would soon be racing when they would get us to Soriano to close it out, which of course never happened. Can you imagine Joe Torre ever managing a pitching staff like Williams did last night? I think that this game and the early game against the Braves when he brought Clippard in to face Heyward were MW’s two worst pitching decisions so far this season.

    • natszee - May 25, 2014 at 9:32 AM

      This is seldom the case with SS. He is 14-16 in games he pitches into the 7th inning. He is neither an “ace” or a “horse”. Just a good MLB pitcher. The sooner he is utilized for what he is the more successful he and this team will be.

      • Hiram Hover - May 25, 2014 at 11:41 AM

        Strasburg’s ERA by innings, over his career::

        1-3: 3.27
        4-6: 2.74
        7-9: 3.00

    • Eric - May 25, 2014 at 9:39 AM

      Joe, I agree re: Stras last night. He was pretty clearly gassed and should’ve been pulled after the first man was on base.

      That said, I think he’s slowly but surely working towards the next stage in his evolution. He’s pushing up his pitch counts, he’s moving past adversity with poise, he’s getting very good at holding runners, etc.

      • natsjackinfl - May 25, 2014 at 9:41 AM

        +1

      • Joe Seamhead - May 25, 2014 at 10:09 AM

        Agreed that he is working his way towards the next stage, but the fact is, he’s not there yet. Even if he was, why not use the tools that you have? An analogy:If I build a house I use a big hammer for framing, and I use a different hammer for the finishing work. The days of leaving a guy in for 120 pitches should be a thing of the past with the combination of having all of the specialists and the unprecedented amount of injuries to elbows and shoulders.I think Cholly shortened Docs career in Philly, Sandberg is now doing the same to Lee and Hamels. I’ll bet you a dollar for donuts that Cole Hamels ends up on the DL again before Labor Day. And I don’t give a rat’s butt that Strasburg still wants the ball. The manager is not supposed to allow the inmates to run the asylum.As Eric said, the right call was to pull Stras when he let the first guy get on in the 7th.

      • Eric - May 25, 2014 at 10:45 AM

        While we’re on the same page re: pulling Stras last night, it *is* a bit of a Cath-22. In order to progress you have to push the envelope, which inherently exposes you to difficulty and increases the risk of failure.

        Under most circumstances I would say MW made the right call, and Stras overall did well. But, at the moment our short term need for a win is greater than the delay in Stras’ development would’ve been had MW pulled him after the first man reached base.

  15. manassasnatsfan - May 25, 2014 at 9:44 AM

    I went in detail in the game analysis. Will reader’s digest here.

    Was at the game. The fans thank MW for insane call. Snyder has 2 hits in 2 weeks looking as bad as Espi. Harrison could easily win player of the week. So let’s intentionally walk the weak link, to pitch to the hottest hitter.

    Fans booed Hurdle for sending to the plate.

    A poor managerial moved was trumped by a poorer one.

  16. Nats fool - May 25, 2014 at 10:02 AM

    I agree that Stras is just a good pitcher, not great. We are around an 82 win team when healthy. Then if that is the case, why the hell did we sit Stras in 2012! Sure, he wasn’t great, but wouldn’t you have loved to have J. Zimm in the BP in Game 5. We were told not to worry; that this team would be back. That was the underlying premise when Rizzo shut him down. Instead we choked in the NLDS and have never played well since. The mental importance of that series demanded we use all our bullets. I will never forgive Rizzo for this, and the right thing for him to do is resign and admit his error.

    • Joe Seamhead - May 25, 2014 at 10:12 AM

      How Foolish…

      • natsjackinfl - May 25, 2014 at 10:20 AM

        It’s in the name, Joe. Says it all.

    • unkyd59 - May 25, 2014 at 10:19 AM

      Fool, WTH are you even talking about?!

      “Then if that is the case, why the hell did we sit Stras in 2012! Sure, he wasn’t great, but wouldn’t you have loved to have J. Zimm in the BP in Game 5.”

    • adcwonk - May 25, 2014 at 1:03 PM

      why the hell did we sit Stras in 2012!….

      See: Medlin, Kris.

  17. adcwonk - May 25, 2014 at 1:12 PM

    [Strasburg] has never been their best pitcher.

    Let’s see — let’s take last year. In 2013, Strasburg, among starters:

    – led the team in ERA
    – led the team in WHIP
    – led the team in fewest hits/IP
    – led the team in K’s/IP

    among the four starters that had 30 or more starts:

    – fewest hits (by over 30)
    – fewest R, ER, HR

    Just sayin’

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