Ryan Zimmerman's throwing issue is a concern for the Nationals, no question about it, especially when that issue directly impacts the outcome of a ballgame the way it did Saturday afternoon during an 8-2 loss to the Cubs on South Capitol Street.
But the greater concern for the Nationals right now is the man who was on the mound when Zimmerman committed his latest throwing error, the man expected to lead this pitching staff and pick up his teammates when one of them makes a mistake. Stephen Strasburg wasn't able to do that on Saturday, and he hasn't been able to do that much at all during what has become a shockingly difficult 2013 season to date for the Nationals' presumptive ace.
"He's too good a pitcher to let adversity behind him let him down," manager Davey Johnson said. "He's certainly capable of picking us up. It's a team effort. And errors are a part of the game."
For four innings on Saturday, Strasburg looked poised to put his sluggish start to the season in the rear-view mirror and re-establish his position as one of the most feared pitchers on the planet. In retiring the first 11 Chicago batters he faced, six via strikeout, the 24-year-old right-hander for the first time all season resembled the dynamic flamethrower who captivated the sporting public when he first arrived on the big-league stage.
"That's just what you want," Johnson said. "He was doing the things he wanted. He was using all his pitches. I thought he was probably gonna go the route."
Strasburg was well on his way to the first complete game of his career, or at the very least his first eight-inning start in the big leagues, until disaster struck with two outs in the fifth.
Welington Castillo chopped a grounder to third, and as Zimmerman prepared to make the routine throw to first, Strasburg began walking toward the dugout. But there's been nothing routine about Zimmerman's throws across the diamond of late, and though he had seemingly made progress in the last week since returning from a hamstring strain, this one got away from him, pulling Adam LaRoche off the bag and prolonging the inning.
"You'll feel good for a week or so at a time, and you'll have a day where you do something like this," said Zimmerman, whose fielding error later in the game leave with a league-high seven for the season. "I wish I knew what to tell you. I wish I knew why it happens and why it doesn't happen. Obviously I haven't been able to figure that out yet. It's happening, and I have to keep working and keep going."
Had Strasburg retired the next batter he faced, the .153-hitting Darwin Barney, Zimmerman's error would have been a footnote. Instead, it became the tipping point for a ballgame that immediately spiraled out of control.
Strasburg proceeded to melt down on the mound. He walked Barney. He ran the count full against Edwin Jackson and then served up a two-run double to the opposing pitcher. He walked David DeJesus. He allowed an infield single to Starlin Castro. And then he served up a two-run single to Anthony Rizzo.
Just like that, what looked only minutes earlier like a potential perfect game for Strasburg had morphed into a 4-0 deficit.
"You've got your horse on the mound, who nobody should really get a hit off him, and you [make] an error, it's like giving a free base," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "It's just like walking. We've got to pitch around those things. We've obviously got to play better defense. But it's give-and-take. I don't think Zim's going to have a hard time sleeping. It's not like he's not trying out there."
Support for Zimmerman was universal throughout the clubhouse.
"I like where he's at," Johnson said. "Like I say, it's exacerbated when the pitcher doesn't pick us up. Then you think about the error. And it's a team sport. Make a bad pitch, the guy runs it down. Make a mistake, the pitcher bears down on the next guy."
That has been a problem-area for Strasburg, well before this game. More than a few observers have noted his body language and defeated look when something starts to go wrong around him, and those were clearly evident during the fifth inning on Saturday.
"It's hard to see emotion and things like that on the field, because I'm trying to watch the hitter, watch the pitch sequence, stuff like that," Desmond said. "I would say you guys, the fans, things like that, probably have a little better visual of that than I do."
Desmond then paused and added: "But it clearly wasn't the same."
Strasburg, now 1-5 on the season and win-less since Opening Day, still boasts a 3.10 ERA and a 51-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio. But the numbers aren't entirely indicative of the way he's pitched, certainly for someone for whom the bar has been set so high.
"I feel like I'm going out there and pitching well," he said. "It's just not happening on the days I pitch right now. It's all going to change. It's still early, and all I can do is just go out there and give everything I have every fifth day. Whatever happens, happens."
How swift was Strasburg's implosion on Saturday? After needing only 53 pitches to complete his first four innings, he needed an astounding 42 in the fifth inning alone (26 coming after the Zimmerman error).
Even though his starter was sitting on 95 pitches at that point and was only one pitch removed from a dominating performance, Johnson didn't even consider sending Strasburg back to the mound for the sixth.
"After that kind of inning, I couldn't bring him back out," the manager said.
Not that the Nationals bullpen did anything to stop the bleeding. Mop-up man Zach Duke, making his first appearance in 11 days, gave up four more runs in the sixth, turning this game into a blowout and sending many among the crowd of 37,116 to the exits early.
Would the entire storyline of the afternoon have changed had Zimmerman simply made the routine play? The former Gold Glove third baseman certainly wished that was the case.
"Obviously, anytime anyone makes an error they want it not to hurt the team," he said. "Anytime you mess up and the pitcher gets out of it and it doesn't end up affecting the game, it's obviously a huge difference. We could care less about errors if it doesn't really mess with the outcome of the game. But anytime it changes the outcome of the game, especially the momentum for Stephen, it's terrible."
Then again, the storyline also would have changed had Strasburg been able to overcome the gaffe behind him.
"Where we needed him to pick us up," Johnson said, "the air went out."