Harper: 'I could (not) care less who I face'
DETROIT — He had dominated one of baseball's toughest lineups all night, but here stood Stephen Strasburg in the bottom of the sixth inning Tuesday night, needing to execute one more pitch in order to escape a bases-loaded jam and keep the Nationals and Tigers tied at Comerica Park.
The count was 2-1 to Alex Avila, and Wilson Ramos called for a fastball down and away to Detroit's .193-hitting catcher. Strasburg, though, misfired by a foot, leaving the 96-mph heater on the lower-inside corner, right in Avila's wheelhouse. As the ball soared toward the right-field bleachers and the crowd of 41,880 rejoiced the grand slam, Strasburg could only soak it all in, mutter a couple of things and try to recompose himself and finish his evening.
The rest of the Nationals, meanwhile, could only take a deep breath and come to grips with their latest dose of stark reality: This 5-1 loss to Detroit, combined with the Braves' lopsided win over Colorado, leaves them a full 10 games back in the NL East entering the final day of July.
"I really could care less what the Braves do," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We're [three] games under .500. We've got to worry about ourselves. That's first and foremost. And then the rest will take care of itself."
It may not matter if the rest takes care of itself. The Nationals aren't holding up their end of the bargain, and because of it they're digging themselves into an even deeper hole.
They had a chance to at least hold ground on Tuesday, but it required near-perfection from Strasburg and at least some semblance of run support from his teammates. They got neither.
Strasburg did his part for five innings, holding the Tigers to one run and needing a scant 59 pitches to reach that juncture. But his mates had no more luck against Anibal Sanchez, once again stymied by the veteran right-hander who owns this franchise like no other.
Bryce Harper's game-opening triple and Ryan Zimmerman's subsequent RBI single gave the Nationals a quick 1-0 lead, but they were silenced after that by Sanchez, who now boasts a 9-1 record and 1.98 ERA in 21 career starts against Washington.
"This guy is tough on us," manager Davey Johnson said. "I don't know, what is he, 9-1 against us? Ridiculously tough."
"He's a good pitcher," Desmond added. "I think that goes overlooked, because he's in a rotation with a couple guys who are $100 million, $200 million pitchers, so he goes overlooked."
The game stood at 1-1 into the bottom of the sixth, with Strasburg pitching well enough that Johnson contemplated him notching the first complete game of his career. Then the wheels started falling off. Strasburg surrendered a one-out single to Prince Fielder, followed by a double to Victor Martinez just past a lunging Adam LaRoche at first base. A walk to Jhonny Peralta loaded the bases, and now Strasburg was in real trouble.
He did fight back, striking out Andy Dirks on a gutsy, 3-2 curveball, he still needed to get Avila to escape the jam unscathed. He also knew one more run could be the difference in the game.
"I mean, the way it's been going, I felt like there wasn't much room for error," Strasburg said in a veiled reference to the MLB-worst run support he's received this season. "So I knew I had to go right after him and make him swing the bat."
Strasburg fell behind, 2-1, to Avila. That's when Ramos called for the outside fastball, and when Strasburg missed inside.
"It was just one pitch," Ramos said. "It happens in the game. You have to keep fighting."
Easier said than done. A tie game was now a four-run deficit.
"Four runs, for an offense that was clicking before the day off, it didn't really seem insurmountable," Desmond said. "We're definitely gaining confidence in our offense, so at no point was I ever like: 'Oh, we're out of this game.'"
Except the Nationals put only one more man on base over the final three innings. Sanchez and a pair of Detroit relievers combined to retire nine of the last 10 batters they faced.
And that leaves this underachieving ballclub now facing a double-digit deficit in the division, with 55 games to play and less reason than ever to believe a comeback is possible. Especially for one member of the rotation who now finds himself 5-9 despite a 3.04 ERA.
"I pitch once every five days," Strasburg said. "I give it everything I've got the day I pitch. And if it doesn't turn out the way you hope, then you do your best to learn from it and get them the next time."