For a while, it looked like this afternoon's outing was going to be Stephen Strasburg's best of the season. Through his first 4 2/3 innings, he'd allowed just two Cubs baserunners and had struck out seven. He was mowing hitters down with a fastball that topped out at 98 mph and worked in dazzling off-speed pitches.
By the time the fifth inning ended, Strasburg had allowed five hits, two walks and four runs, and the Nationals suddenly trailed 4-0. A Ryan Zimmerman error with two outs and nobody on kept the inning going and appeared to rattle Strasburg. The Nats' ace allowed the last seven hitters he faced to reach base.
He benefited from two Cubs outs on the basepaths in that fifth inning, but still saw his outing end abruptly despite such a promising start.
"It was unfortunate," manager Davey Johnson said. "It's hard to explain. He was throwing good, good stuff, hitting his spots. And then it seemed to, where we needed him to pick us up, the air went out."
Strasburg threw 53 pitches through his first four innings. In the fifth inning alone, he threw 42, 26 of which came after the Zimmerman error.
So how do you explain the sudden decline after Strasburg started so effectively?
"I don't know," said Johnson, speaking slowly and pausing to collect his thoughts. "He's too good a pitcher to let adversity behind him let him down. He's certainly capable of picking us up. It's a team effort. And errors are a part of the game."
The Nationals have been working with Strasburg this season, trying to get him to ease off on his perfectionist tendencies and realize "he's human," in pitching coach Steve McCatty's words. At times, Strasburg's body language tends to change after he doesn't get a close call or allows a couple of baserunners, and his performance in those situations can tend to suffer.
Count today as an example of both. Strasburg appeared unsettled after the Zimmerman error, and he was unable to get the final out in the fifth until it was too late.
"I may have a few words with him, but McCatty has had conversations with him about not letting anything bother you in the ballgame," Johnson said. "And sometimes, he's such a perfectionist, any little thing can ... even when a guy flies out, he'll wonder if he threw the pitch in the right spot. He's very critical of himself. Tough one to let get away."
This isn't the first time an error behind Strasburg led to trouble. Johnson pointed out that in Strasburg's start against the Braves back on April 13, the right-hander followed an error by leaving a fastball high in the zone, and Evan Gattis crushed it for a two-run homer. That error was also made by Zimmerman and it came with two outs.
"Makes the fielder feel bad enough, but like I said, it's a team effort," Johnson said. "You've got to bear down on the next guy and get him out, pick us up. I wouldn't say it's ... younger pitchers, they have a tendency to be a little more emotional and maybe lose a little more of their poise. But you get over that."
Zimmerman had looked to be getting back on track from a defensive standpoint. His throws over the last handful of games appeared stronger and more accurate than they had been earlier in the season, but his throwing error today sailed up the line and forced Adam LaRoche off the bag.
Johnson was asked if he's concerned about Zimmerman's throwing issues popping back up again today.
"No, 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. Makes a bad pitch, the (defender) runs it down. Make a (defensive) mistake, the pitcher bears down on the next guy."
Strasburg was unable to do that today, and he fell to 1-5 on the season.