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.”