Stephen Strasburg did not have his best stuff in Saturday’s 3-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves, his curveball did not have the usual break or precision and his changeup kept finding its way into the dirt. But despite not being sharp, the Nats’ ace did all he could to put his team into position to win. And if it weren’t for a two-out throwing error by Ryan Zimmerman in the fourth inning, he may have kept Atlanta off the board altogether.
Strasburg’s pitch count was high early on, but he had the Braves on the ropes in the fourth with two outs and nobody on. He induced a weak grounder by Justin Upton towards Zimmerman who rushed the routine throw and missed Adam LaRoche at first by several feet. It was Zimmerman’s second throwing error in as many games and once again proved a deciding factor in the team’s loss.
The next batter, Evan Gattis, promptly took a high fastball deep into left-center over the visitor’s bullpen for a two-run shot. The Braves never looked back on their way to winning the second of this weekend’s three game series.
“I should have set my feet, that’s why it’s so frustrating,” Zimmerman said. “That’s why it’s so frustrating, I had more time and I should have just set my feet and made a strong throw like I’ve been doing all year on those balls.”
Zimmerman shuffled his feet as he threw, perhaps due to Upton’s speed closing the window at first, but he scooped the grounder quickly and probably had more time.
“It’s unfortunate they capitalized on it and it became a big part of the game, but it happens. That’s part of the game,” he said.
Zimmerman insists the throw had nothing to do with his surgery-repaired right shoulder which was something he had to work his way back from this offseason.
“I feel fine, it’s part of the game. I wish I wasn’t going to make any errors, I wish I could go every single game and be perfect, but I don’t think anyone’s ever done that,” he said.”
“I’ll make more, unfortunately today they took advantage of it.”
Nats manager Davey Johnson suggested it could still be a part of his road back from the shoulder injury.
“He had a major problem in there, they corrected it and he’s rebuilding it, it’s just going to take time,” he said. “I think he’s throwing a lot better, I know he feels a lot better about it.”
Johnson also attributed Zimmerman’s throwing problems to playing deeper in the infield, something he is adjusting to this season.
Strasburg served up the subsequent homer to Gattis, but did not take the earned runs because of Zimmerman’s error. Nonetheless, he got bitten by the Braves’ rookie who has tremendous power and the advantage of a slim scouting report.
“The guy’s up there hacking, I throw one up at his neck and he tomahawks it out,” Strasburg said. “I think the previous at-bat I was missing up there a little bit, tried to go fastball away and I did it again and he ran into one. You don’t face a guy like that ever, don’t really have a book to go off of.”
Strasburg’s fourth inning was the difference in the game, despite the right-hander settling in and pitching through the sixth. He finished with five hits allowed, one walk, and seven strikeouts. Even without the earned runs, he took the loss.
Strasburg ended up with 112 pitches, 68 of them strikes, the second time he has hit at least 110 in three starts this season. Last year Strasburg’s high was 119 and his second highest 111. Him going later into games is something new for the Nats and a situation Johnson is utilizing.
“Well he’s my horse, I needed to give him every chance to win that ballgame,” Johnson said. “I thought he was throwing good, he just didn’t have command.”
Strasburg’s counterpart Tim Hudson was as stingy as he usually is against the Nationals. Hudson kept his pitch count low and allowed just one earned run and four hits through seven innings. He doesn’t throw as hard as he used to at 37 years old, but his placement and pitch selection is tough to handle.
“If you don’t get him early, it’s tough. He gets settled in and does pretty good,” Zimmerman said.
“To righties he shows in and he brings the sinker backdoor, but the biggest thing now is he throws his slider/cutter thing at the righty so he can throw that inside or outside. He’ll mix his changeup or split, whatever that thing is, in to righties as well. Any time you have a guy who throws four or five pitches at any time, it’s tough. He’s obviously had a really good career doing that.”
The Nats’ only run came on a solo homer by Danny Espinosa in the fifth inning. The Nats' second baseman took the first pitch of the at-bat over the scoreboard in center field. It was his first home run of the season and served as one of the few positives Washington can take away from the afternoon. Espinosa is hitting just .175 in the young season.
“He needed that, he needed something,” Johnson said. “He had such a great spring, I’m surprised he’s struggling.”
The Nats only got four men on base and one was retired in a preventable way. Denard Span singled in the first to lead off the game and then stole second. But on a Jayson Werth flyout to center field, Span kept running to third without tagging up. After securing the catch, Justin Upton was able to casually throw to second for the easy double play.
The Braves scored their third run in the top of the ninth off reliever Ryan Mattheus in a fielder’s choice situation. With the bases loaded, Jason Heyward grounded into a would-be double play that wasn’t turned in time by Ian Desmond at shortstop. Heyward hustled to first and beat the throw.
After getting the insurance run, the ninth was left for Craig Kimbrel to earn his sixth save of the year and his second in as many days. Set up by Eric O’Flaherty in the eighth, Kimbrel retired a pinch-hitting Tracy, then Span and Werth, all on ten pitches. For the second game in a row the Nats’ were essentially cooked before the ninth even started.
“You never want to be behind going into the later part of the game against any team,” Zimmerman said. “But they are obviously one of the best or have been one of the best over the last two or three years. When you’re behind against them in the late innings, it’s tough.”
The Nats not only lost, dropping their second in a row to Atlanta and to a 7-4 record overall, they saw catcher Wilson Ramos leave the game with a pulled left hamstring. Ramos could be out several weeks according to Johnson, who said it added insult to injury on an already frustrating day.
“That’s the heartbreak of the day. He’s playing well, hits the ball hard and tries to leg it out, and pulls a hammy,” Johnson said.
The Nats will try and salvage what they can of the series on Sunday in the third and final game of this early season set. Gio Gonzalez will go against Paul Maholm in a showdown of lefties.