The Nationals' 7-1 loss to the Giants tonight most likely won't be remembered for much by season's end, lost among the handful of duds this otherwise very good team has played in 2016. We won't remember that Matt Cain held them scoreless for five innings despite putting 10 men on base, or that Jonathan Papelbon served up a second-deck homer to Brandon Belt in garbage time.
The two most significant developments on this night, then, might well have involved the Nationals' two biggest-name stars, who each departed earlier than expected under less-than-ideal circumstances.
Stephen Strasburg, in a rare display during this stellar campaign, was beat around and knocked out after only 4 2/3 innings. And Bryce Harper, mired in a slump that extends back several months now, struck out three times and then was pulled with what later was revealed to be neck stiffness.
Whether either development has any carryover or is merely isolated to this one night remains to be seen. Whatever the case, it wasn't a particularly enjoyable show for a crowd of 36,404 that wanted desperately something to cheer for but left empty-handed.
Strasburg, just named National League Pitcher of the Month for July, was attempting to improve to 16-1. He enjoyed positive results early on, retiring nine of the first 10 batters he faced, five via strikeout, though he didn't necessarily think he was sharp.
"I feel like I was scuffling the whole game," he said. "Yanking some pitches. Yeah, I retired nine of the first 10, but I didn't really feel like I was executing, and it just kind of caught up to me."
To the untrained eye, the turning point appeared to come not on the mound but on the basepaths. Strasburg led off the bottom of the third with a bloop hit down the right field line and decided to stretch it into a double. He wound up staying on the bases for a while during an attempted rally that never did produce a run, then had to retake the mound quickly for the top of the fourth on a particularly humid night in the District.
Strasburg's pretty sure he took more than the allotted 2 minutes, 5 seconds before throwing his first pitch of the next frame.
"I know I was over the clock," he said. "I'll probably get a letter from the office or something. I think it's something that you just gotta do what you can to get out there as fast as possible. But at the same time, muggy night, you have to catch your breath a little bit."
Whether any of this impacted what happened next is up to interpretation. But Strasburg simply didn't have the same results from that point on. He retired only five of the next 13 batters he faced, giving up two extra-base hits, not to mention the first bases-loaded walk of his career.
"Just one of those games where it's like, you make a pitch and they somehow keep the inning alive," he said. "Was happy with myself to kind of minimize the damage there in the fourth inning (when two runs scored but the Giants stranded the bases loaded). That was probably as big a jam as you could be in, so to really get out of there with only two runs, was really happy with the way I battled there."
Five batters into the fifth inning, though, Strasburg looked cooked. His jersey a darker shade of red than others and soaked through with sweat, his hair equally damp, the right-hander was pulled with his pitch count at 88, unable to complete five innings for the first time this season.
"They were hitting him pretty hard, which they usually don't," manager Dusty Baker said. "And you don't want to leave him out there to get beaten up, either. We weren't scoring any runs. I thought that was enough for Stras. I think he had almost 90 pitches in five innings. How much further was he going to go? We decided to pull him at that point in time."
Both teams seemed to go through the motions the rest of the night, the Nationals unable to mount any kind of rally that would have made things interesting. And when the top of the seventh arrived and rookie Brian Goodwin replaced Harper in right field, Baker either was signaling a white flag or that his struggling slugger was injured.
Turns out it was the latter. Harper has been dealing with a stiff neck for the last few days, and the condition worsened during the course of this game, to the point he couldn't continue.
"It's been bothering me," the 23-year-old said. "Tonight, (Baker) came up to me in the seventh inning and just gave me the night off: 'We'll get you out of there.' "
Harper, who after striking out three times is hitting .233, isn't entirely sure what caused the problem - "Maybe a pillow?" - but neither he nor Baker expressed concern this would be a significant issue for long. He may sit out Sunday afternoon's series finale, but likely would be good to go by the time the Nationals return Tuesday night to face the Indians.
"I'm not sure," he said. "It's a stiff neck. That's not the greatest for baseball. Definitely tough, but I'll try to come in here tomorrow and see where we're at."