PITTSBURGH - It all happened so fast. The Nationals held a 1-0 lead when the seventh inning ended Tuesday night. Stephen Strasburg was in complete control. And then the Nationals were down 4-1 to the Pirates after Wander Suero and Daniel Hudson made a mess of the eighth inning.
It’s hardly the first time this has happened to the Nationals this season. But it was a particularly interesting recurrence of “The Eighth Inning Problem,” for a variety of reasons.
There were interesting decisions made by Davey Martinez. There were interesting explanations by the pitchers involved for what happened. And there was interesting context related to who was and wasn’t available out of the Nats’ ever-changing bullpen.
So let’s run through the key moments and decisions and context involved in this latest example of a game that was there for the taking and then went awry late ...
* The decision to pull Strasburg after 94 pitches
Strasburg cruised through this start. There’s no other way to describe it. He allowed only five baserunners in seven innings. He allowed only two to reach scoring position. He never needed to throw more than 18 pitches in any single inning. He walked off the mound at the end of the seventh with a pitch count of 94.
Strasburg has averaged 102 pitches per start this season. He threw 110 pitches in his previous outing. He had been pulled after fewer than 95 pitches only twice.
So why did Martinez shake his hand as he reached the dugout following the bottom of the seventh, with his team leading 1-0?
“He was good,” the manager said. “I mean, 94 pitches ... his last outing was over 100. But he was good. He had good stuff today, and he got us to the seventh. We had a well-rested bullpen. It just didn’t work out.”
That’s not exactly an ironclad explanation for the decision. And Strasburg, for his part, didn’t suggest he wanted out of the game at that point.
“Davey thought it was enough,” the right-hander said. “And I think we win as a team and lose as a team. And it just didn’t work out for us.”
Strasburg is being diplomatic, and he’s being a good teammate. But it wasn’t hard to decipher what he really wanted: He wanted to pitch the eighth.
* The decision to use Suero to begin the eighth
If Martinez was convinced Strasburg was done for the night, he needed to be convinced the guy he brought in from the bullpen was a better option than a starter approaching 100 pitches. Every one of his currently healthy late-inning options was available. With the possible exception of Hunter Strickland, who broke his nose earlier in the afternoon in a weightlifting mishap. Martinez described Strickland as being available, but he also suggested he wanted to avoid using the right-hander if possible.
“He was available,” Martinez said. “But he broke his nose. But like I said, I like Suero. Suero was the guy in that spot.”
Why was Suero the guy instead of Strickland or Hudson or Fernando Rodney? Because the Pirates had their Nos. 8, 9 and 1 hitters due up. The No. 8 hitter was backup catcher Jacob Stallings. The No. 9 hitter was going to be pinch-hitter Melky Cabrera, batting from the left side. And the No. 1 hitter was Adam Frazier, a lefty.
The Nationals have touted Suero all season as a good option against left-handed hitters. It’s only partially accurate. Lefties don’t hit for power against Suero (.340 slugging percentage, .396 for righties) but they actually hit for a higher average (.278 vs. .217).
No matter who he was facing Tuesday night, Suero didn’t have the command to get batters out. He threw only five of his 11 pitches for strikes, done in by his trademark cutter, which he explained was doing unusual things.
“Normally, my cutter moves a little more sideways, laterally. And it’s short,” he said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “Today it had a lot of depth to it, and it was a lot bigger than normal. That’s what I saw that was real big today.”
* Hudson’s struggles
Once Suero loaded the bases with nobody out, Martinez decided to bring in his most trusted fireman. Hudson has excelled all season getting out of jams, both with the Blue Jays and with the Nationals. It didn’t happen this time, not even close.
Bryan Reynolds swung at Hudson’s first pitch and sent a fly ball to medium-deep center field, deep enough to score the tying run. The real trouble came four pitches later, when Starling Marte crushed a 1-2 fastball to right-center for the three-run homer that proved the difference in the game.
“Obviously, I had Marte in a put-away count,” Hudson said. “I threw a really bad fastball, probably the worst one I’ve thrown since I’ve been here. And he did what he’s supposed to do with it: He hit it hard.”
The issue, as Hudson explained it, was location. Catcher Kurt Suzuki was set up on the inside corner. Hudson’s fastball nearly reached the outside corner.
“I was trying to go in, and I just kind of yanked it back over the middle of the plate,” he said. “Pretty much middle-middle, and he smoked it.”
* The lefty problem
It’s no secret the Nationals have desperately needed a reliable left-handed reliever (outside of closer Sean Doolittle) for several years now. They’ve seen Sammy Solís, Matt Grace, Tony Sipp and Dan Jennings all flame out. They thought they found their guy at the trade deadline in Roenis Elías, but then he strained his hamstring running out a ground ball in his Nats debut three weeks ago.
So Martinez has been forced to use right-handers he believes are effective against left-handed batters, like Suero. It hasn’t worked with any consistency.
The Nationals need a lefty who can actually get lefties out, not one they hope can do it. Elías is scheduled to throw first bullpen session before Thursday’s game, his first since going on the injured list. Suffice it to say, they need him back as soon as possible.
And then they need him to do the job they acquired him to do.