There's an inherent flaw in expecting Stephen Strasburg to save you every time he pitches: Once in a while, he's not going to win.
That can happen on nights even when Strasburg pitches with such brilliance that even the boldest superlatives sound reasonable. He did that again on Friday night, allowing one run on four hits in seven innings, striking out 10 against a Chicago White Sox lineup that had fanned less than any team in the American League, and using just 85 pitches to do it.
And yet, Strasburg didn't win. He needed Adam Dunn's seventh-inning double to take him off the hook for a loss, and the Nationals fell 2-1 in extra innings.
Now, the Nationals have lost four straight, they've fallen six games under .500 and it's fair to ask whether even Strasburg can save them.
Their offense has scored just four runs a game in the last 33 games, a half-run worse than their output in their first 35. They've walked 37 less times in that stretch, and after starting the year with a .340 on-base percentage, the Nationals have gotten on base at a .322 clip in the last 33.
The victim on Friday night was Strasburg, pitching in front of a sold-out crowd that included President Obama and his two daughters. Strasburg had Nationals Park rocking again but was done in by a couple bloops, including an infield single in the first inning that led to the White Sox's only run off the right-hander. He beat himself up for it after the game, saying he should have been quicker to cover first with Chicago speedster Juan Pierre running down the baseline. But the Nationals' margin for error is so thin right now, a couple steps on an infield single is enough to break them.
"I think we're just getting pitched well," manager Jim Riggleman said. "Detroit pitched us well. (Jeremy) Bonderman's got a great slider. He got a lot of strikeouts off that. (Chicago starter Gavin) Floyd had great stuff tonight. (Detroit right-hander Justin) Verlander speaks for itself. We're kind of running into that. I'm really proud of the way our guys played. You hate to concede anything when you're taking these losses the way we are. But I really like the way we played ball tonight."
A game against Verlander, the Tigers' ace, is easy to concede. But Bonderman had a 4.21 ERA before Thursday's win over the Nationals, and Floyd, who pitched eight innings in the White Sox's win on Friday, entered the night 2-7 with a 5.64 ERA.
In the four-game losing streak, they've struck out 40 times, walked just five, and two of those were intentional. One of the intentional walks came in the eighth inning, after Cristian Guzman swung at the first pitch he saw and hit a grounder to third that had no shot of moving Nyjer Morgan from second to third. The White Sox conceded first base to Ryan Zimmerman, and Dunn struck out, making his 27th out in 28 at-bats with two out and runners in scoring position.
"The (strike) zone's been tough at times," hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. "Without getting into specifics, you try to understand the strike zone as you're conducting your at-bat, and sometimes that fluctuates. But no excuses, we have to do a better job."
They found out on Friday what happens if they don't. And that's Strasburg, despite seven innings of incandescent work, beating himself up over not covering first.