Losing two home games against the Chicago Cubs is disheartening and, after the excellent game Friday night, it was as if a switch just flipped and the progress of the prior week vanished in the flash of a Stephen Strasburg meltdown.
There wasn’t much to like on Saturday and Sunday unless you are a ticket rep for the Nationals. They are selling ducats like snow cones in 100-degree heat. Sky-high expectations bring in the fans and despite the cool weather and the failure of the real Nationals to settle in and stay, the Nationals are averaging 32,000 people per game, among the top 10 in Major League Baseball. More than 110,000 came to see the Cubs play the Nats. Washington fans still believe in their team.
Unfortunately, fan favorite Strasburg threw a switch on Saturday that killed the momentum of a great week. Much has been said about Ryan Zimmerman’s throwing error that led to the loss against Chicago. But even before the error, for the entirety of the fifth inning, Strasburg was not sharp. For four innings, Strasburg had been near perfect, hitting 97 and 98 mph with his fastball and bending his curve in for strikes. He had seven strikeouts and had given up only a single hit. But something changed in the fifth inning.
Strasburg had been bailed out by his defense when Danny Espinosa and Roger Bernadina converted a possible one-out triple into the second out with spectacular execution of first the cutoff throw and then the relay by Espinosa. No, the fault was not the defense but the two walks and the four hard hit balls that plated four runs. Those belong to Strasburg, regardless what the official line is.
Strasburg is supposed to be the stopper, the one who puts an end to losing streaks. And when you need a key win to ice the third series win in a row, he is supposed to be the man. But so far in this season, that Stephen Strasburg has appeared only on two occasions. Forearm tightness or whatever else is ailing him, fans are still searching for signs of the bulldog competitor that was Strasburg.
It is a huge weight to put on one player. But there is a silver lining. Strasburg has a lot of company. There are many Nationals players who have yet to hit their stride this season. There are more players either hurt or looking for the right side of the Mendoza line than those who came out smoking in the first round.
And yet as the team heads out for a long road trip, their record of 20 wins against 17 losses has not cost them much. The National League East is still a tight race. The Atlanta Braves look every bit as lost as the Nationals did Saturday against the Cubs. Since going 12-1 in the first few weeks of the season, Atlanta has been on a steady slide back to the pack. Washington was but a single game behind the Braves as the road trip began, which says a lot about how bad the Braves have been.
The question worth asking is this: Is the Nationals’ mug is half-empty or half-full? The answer depends on whether one believes Zimmerman will end the season with a handful of home runs, whether Strasburg will lose 20 games instead of winning 20 and whether Drew Storen will end the season with an ERA close to 5.00. The odds are good that many of the worst trend lines of the 2013 season will right themselves with time.
It may not happen on the road trip. Clayton Kershaw pitches Tuesday and no West Coast swing is easy. The World Series champs await in San Francisco this weekend and the Giants won three of four from the Braves while the Nationals were playing the Cubs.
Yet the Nationals still have a proven quality major league player at every position. They still have a rotation that can match up against the St. Louis Cardinals or anyone else. The glass will begin to fill in the coming months. Better days are still ahead. That is the promise of baseball and it is one that has particular meaning for the 2013 Nationals.
Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released in June 2011. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.