A season that has been nearly perfect for Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg had to have some negatives in store. The first inning of Tuesday afternoon's 6-1 loss to the San Diego Padres qualifies.
A bloop hit eluded left fielder Roger Bernadina, center fielder Rick Ankiel and shortstop Ian Desmond in the top of the first thanks to a miscommunication, and that began a cascading series of events that put Washington (22-14) in an early hole it never recovered from at Nationals Park.
In all, Strasburg threw 39 pitches in the top of the first, faced several batters in the midst of a heavy rain storm, took an eight-minute break for a rain delay and, apparently, was feeling the effects of some "hot stuff" rubbed in the "wrong spot," according to manager Davey Johnson.
That last excuse remains nebulous. Johnson mentioned it in his post-game news conference, but Strasburg said only "we'll keep that in the clubhouse" when asked what happened. Was it a prank gone wrong? A trainer's mistake? Or did Strasburg on his own just get too liberal with the muscle-soothing balm?
Whatever happened, it was part of his worst inning of the season. Place the blame for the bloop double by leadoff batter Will Venable on Bernadina, the closest player to the baseball. But Strasburg also walked two batters and gave up RBI singles to Yonder Alonso and John Baker, as he struggled to grip the ball and deal with a suddenly muddy mound. Before the end of the first frame, it was 3-0 San Diego.
"It's tough, but that's the one thing you have to do is go out there and minimize the damage to the best of your ability," Strasburg said. "The ball was soaking wet up until the second-to-last hitter I faced that inning. You're just trying to guide it in there. ... I don't have any margin for error."
Meanwhile, right-handed starter Anthony Bass kept Washington off balance with an assortment of sliders and change-ups. He retired nine of the first 10 Nats batters he faced, and allowed only one run when rookie Bryce Harper took him deep to center for his second homer in as many games. Otherwise, Washington pushed just one runner to third base against Bass, who gave up five hits and a walk in eight innings.
Strasburg entered the game 3-0 with a 1.64 ERA and had never left before the end of the sixth inning in seven starts. He gave up four runs on seven hits and exited 3-1 with a 2.25 ERA. A four-inning outing was tied for the shortest of his career.
"When you start the game that way [with a mental error], a little inclement weather, there were some other problems with some 'hot stuff' on [Strasburg]," Johnson said. "But when you take it for granted that the other guy is going to catch it, it'll drop. All three of them are responsible. To start a game like that changes the momentum, gives them extra life."