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Strasburg, Nats not so hot against Padres

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Strasburg, Nats not so hot against Padres

The lore of Stephen Strasburg includes a 14-strikeout debut. It includes a triple-digit fastball and a knee-buckling curveball. And it includes, to date, a wildly successful recovery from Tommy John surgery.

It may now also include the case of the unfortunately placed ointment.

As if the top of the first inning of today's 6-1 loss to the Padres -- featuring a routine fly ball falling between three Nationals fielders, a sudden deluge requiring an eight-minute rain delay and three San Diego runs -- wasn't strange enough for Strasburg, manager Davey Johnson suggested afterward his young ace was also bothered by the misapplication of some heating balm.

"I can't really tell you what the problem was, but some hot stuff got misplaced," Johnson said in cryptic fashion. "It was on his shoulder, and evidently ... I don't know how it got to where it got. But it was uncomfortable, to say the least."

Strasburg would not discuss the subject when asked about it and seemed perturbed his manager volunteered the information at all.

"You know, I'm going to keep that in the clubhouse," the right-hander said.

Whatever truly happened, it was only one of multiple calamities that befell Strasburg during what proved to be one of the least-effective of his 25 career starts. In lasting only four innings while allowing four runs, the 23-year-old racked up 81 pitches and put his team in a hole it couldn't escape.

"I think I can learn a lot from this outing," he said. "I've got to just find the positives and remember that there's always going to be days like this where nothing's really going your way."

It began only six pitches into the afternoon, when Will Venable lofted what looked like a routine flyball to shallow left-center field. Roger Bernadina, Rick Ankiel and Ian Desmond all pursued the pop-up, then all pulled up and watched the ball fall harmlessly to the ground for a gift double.

"It has nothing to do with communication," Bernadina said. "That ball, I should have caught it."

Strasburg tried to maintain his composure in the wake of the defensive gaffe, but it didn't take long before he had to deal with another distraction: A sudden cloudburst that sent the crowd of 23,902 scurrying for cover.

The umpires, led by crew chief Brian Gorman, let play continue under the poor conditions, and Strasburg clearly didn't look comfortable with it. He struggled to get a good grip on the ball, fidgeted with both the mound and the rosin bag and wound up walking two batters and allowing another single, loading the bases with two outs.

Then, with the count 3-2 to Padres catcher Jeff Baker and the rain coming down in buckets, Gorman finally pulled both teams off the field and called for the tarp.

"I mean, the ball was absolutely drenched," Strasburg said. "I probably could've hurt somebody."

Before the grounds crew could cover up the infield, though, the rain stopped. So after only an eight-minute delay to spread some drying agent on the mound, the plate and around the bases, Strasburg retook the mound, still facing Baker with the bases loaded, two outs and a full count.

"It's kind of like: OK, now I don't have any margin for error," Strasburg said.

The right-hander wound up grooving a fastball over the plate, then watched as Baker sent it scurrying back up the middle and past a diving Desmond for a two-run single that put San Diego up 3-0.

"But, I mean, you can pitch through those things," Johnson said. "Like I say, the fly ball dropping just exacerbates the situation. And then the rain delay doesn't make things easier."

Everything that transpired after that disastrous first inning almost seemed insignificant. Strasburg served up a solo homer to James Darnell in the third, then was yanked after laboring through the fourth. In the process, he saw his ERA jump to 2.25 from 1.64.

Facing a significant deficit, the Nationals could not produce a rally against Padres starter Anthony Bass. The 24-year-old right-hander carried a no-hitter into the fourth inning and carried a shutout into the fifth, until Bryce Harper belted his second home run in as many days.

Harper's blast into the center-field bleachers made him the first teenager to homer on back-to-back days since Ken Griffey Jr. in 1989, but it did nothing to spark his teammates into a late offensive splurge. Bass wound up tossing eight innings of five-hit ball before finally turning things over to flamethrowing closer Andrew Cashner.

"Good-looking young pitcher," Johnson said of Bass. "Thought we had him kind of on the ropes a couple times, but just couldn't get the hit."

The Nationals never came close to getting Cashner on the ropes. San Diego's young closer made relatively quick work of the ninth, ending the game with a flourish as he blew a 101-mph fastball past Harper.

Thus the Nationals trudged off the field following a rare lopsided loss, only their fourth this season by more than four runs.

But their first in a game that featured a botched fly ball, an eight-minute rain delay and, of course, some unfortunately placed analgesic ointment.

"It was just tough conditions all around," Strasburg said. "But I'm not one to make excuses. It's just one of those games where you go out there and do your best to overcome the obstacles. Sometimes you just can't get out of it the way you want to."

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Stock Watch: Harper, Zimmerman looking like themselves again

Stock Watch: Harper, Zimmerman looking like themselves again

Each week this season, we’ll take the temperature of the Nationals roster to see which player's stock is rising or falling.  

Record: 3-4

Team slash: .283/.359/.454

Team ERA: 5.79

Runs per game: 6.6 

 

STOCK UP 

Ryan Zimmerman, 1B: .375 AVG, HR, 1.014 OPS

Zimmerman announced his return from the disabled list with authority last weekend in Atlanta, hammering the first pitch he saw into left field for a solo home run. The blast was just the beginning; he’s 6-for-16 since he’s been back, getting solid contact even when he doesn’t get a hit. We’re talking about a very small sample size, of course, but a resurgent Zimmerman would mean wonders for the bottom of the Nats lineup.

Bryce Harper, RF: .357 AVG, 2 HR, 8 RBI, 1.026 OPS

Like Zimmerman, Harper’s going to have to be consistent for a little while longer before fans feel like he’s truly back to his old self. Still, the past week and a half have been a welcome sight for an offense that needs him to look like the reigning NL MVP. He’s posted multi-hit efforts in five out of his last 10 games, notching five extra-base hits over that span. For comparison, that’s the same amount of extra-base hits he had throughout the month of July.

Numbers aside, Harper has simply looked relaxed at the plate lately; he’s no longer chasing pitches out of the strike zone, instead reclaiming his patient approach. Even if he may not be able to completely salvage his season, a strong finish would be a huge boost for the Nats.    

STOCK DOWN 

Stephen Strasburg, SP: 1.2 IP, 9 ER, 15-day disabled list

Even if it’s a precautionary measure, there still has to be slight concern that Strasburg is headed to the disabled list with right elbow soreness. The 28-year-old right hander said Monday that his arm recovery between starts had been getting increasingly difficult, but the discomfort never affected him during his performances. Who knows if there was truly a correlation between the elbow issues and his recent 0-3 skid, but the Nats are hoping that time off will do him some good. With the postseason less than six weeks away, will Strasburg be fully rested and ready to go in October? 

Reynaldo Lopez, SP: 1-1, 4.66 ERA, 1.66 WHIP

While Lopez had two good outings recently, both of them were against the lowly Atlanta Braves. Against contenders like the San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers and Baltimore Orioles? He’s 0-2 with a 10.32 ERA. Granted, he’s still in the infancy of his major-league career, and was only inserted in the rotation because Joe Ross is out with injury. That said, with Strasburg also gone now, it’s up to the back end to create some semblance of stability for the next few weeks. 

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NL East: Phillies among MLB teams to scout Tim Tebow

NL East: Phillies among MLB teams to scout Tim Tebow

Most of Major League Baseball's 30 teams will have a scout in attendance at Tim Tebow's showcase workout on Aug. 30 in Los Angeles, and that list includes the Philadelphia Phillies.

That's according to CSN Philly's Jim Salisbury, who notes the practice will not be open to the public. Tebow, of course, spent time with the Philadelphia Eagles as part of his brief, but noteworthy NFL career.

Tebow has not played a real baseball game since 2005, when he was in high school. Tebow made All-State as a junior in the state of Florida, but since then has been all football. And despite being a quarterback who threw lefty, it sounds like he wants to be an outfielder in his return to baseball. 

Several minor league teams have already offered Tebow a roster spot, including the Waldorf, Md.-based Southern Maryland Blue Crabs. But it sounds like Tebow wants to show off his stuff in front of some MLB teams first.

[RELATED: Nats' defense making uncharacteristic mistakes]

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Nats' defense making uncharacteristic mistakes in recent games

Nats' defense making uncharacteristic mistakes in recent games

Despite having a 37-year-old left fielder, a second baseman with a troubled history in the field and, at times, a host of players learning new positions on the fly, the Nationals have not just been better than expected on defense this season, they have ranked among the top clubs in the majors. 

They are third in fielding percentage, sixth in efficiency rating and 10th in double plays. The Nats have committed the third-fewest errors this season and generally a team not known for beating themselves.

Lately, that has not been the case. In Tuesday night's 8-1 loss to the Orioles, the Nats saw Daniel Murphy - the second baseman referenced above - boot a groundball in the third inning that led to two runs.

That blunder wasn't the reason the Nats lost the game. It was, though, a continuation of a trend for the Nationals that has emerged during their road trip.

In their loss on Monday night, Bryce Harper bobbled a ball in right field that helped lead to a run. In Sunday's loss, the Nats committed five errors, their most in a game since July 15, 2011. In their win on Saturday, Wilmer Difo had an error that led to a run. And on Friday, the Nats had two errors lead to a pair of runs in the eighth inning alone. 

That's a lot of mistakes in a span of just six games, but manager Dusty Baker isn't ready to worry quite yet.

"It's a matter of timing," Baker said. "You get timing in hitting, timing in defense. Things go in streaks. You score a lot of runs in streaks and don't make errors for a long period of time. Then you make quite a few errors in a short period of time."

Murphy was more succinct in his assessment of the Nats' recent defensive woes.

“I’d say we’re not catching it, probably the easiest way to describe it," he said.

Murphy did, however, explain his own mistake on Tuesday night and how he believes it affected young starter Reynaldo Lopez, who made it only 2 2/3 innings, in part due to two unearned runs on the error.

"If I make that play right there, he gets a chance to go another inning, maybe settle into the ballgame. Unfortunately, I didn’t give him that chance tonight," Murphy said. "A six-run lead compared to a four-run lead is completely different, especially in this ballpark. Unfortunate he didn’t get a chance to go back out there and find his rhythm."

The Nats defensive skid has coincided with a tough time for their pitching staff. Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross are on the disabled list, leaving rookies to fill the void. And their bullpen has been beaten up by injuries, rain delays and a heavy workload. 

The last thing the Nats need right now is for their play in the field to exacerbate the problems in their pitching staff. Baker, again, is not concerned.

"Hopefully this is the end of it and we've gotten it out of our system," he said.

[RELATED: Nats fall on wrong side of three challenges by Orioles]

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