Strasburg cruises, bullpen blows up in 4-1 loss (updated)

PITTSBURGH - Stephen Strasburg didn’t necessarily dominate the Pirates tonight. He simply cruised along, allowing a few baserunners here and there but never allowing them to seriously threaten to score against him. And when he departed the mound after seven innings of 94-pitch ball, the Nationals right-hander seemingly had another frame in him.

But when Strasburg reached the dugout, he was greeted with handshakes from his manager and pitching coach. His night was over. Davey Martinez was now putting this game in the hands of his suddenly reconfigured bullpen, giving that group zero margin for error in a one-run game.

“He had good stuff today,” Martinez said of Strasburg. “He got us (through) the seventh. We had a well-rested bullpen. It just didn’t work out.”

No, it most certainly did not.

It took only five batters for the bullpen not only to give up the lead but to give up the entire game. The Pirates scored four runs off Wander Suero and Daniel Hudson in the blink of an eye and sent the Nationals to a gut-punch of a 4-1 loss at PNC Park.

A few days ago, Martinez’s bullpen decisions for a game like this, his team up 1-0 after seven, might have been simple. But that was before Sean Doolittle landed on the injured list Sunday, and that was before Hunter Strickland broke his nose in a weightlifting accident earlier this afternoon. Strickland was in the bullpen and apparently available tonight, but he never so much as warmed up.

Instead, it was Suero who got the ball to open the bottom of the eighth against Pittsburgh’s 8-9-1 hitters, two of them left-handed hitters.

“Bottom of the order, left-handed guys coming up,” Martinez said. “We had him penciled in for the lefties.”

The right-handed Suero didn’t retire any of the three batters he faced, giving up a single to Kevin Stallings, advancing pinch-runner Steven Brault to second on a wild pitch, walking Melky Cabrera and then giving up a single to Adam Frazier on an odd line drive bunt that eluded the entire Nats infield.

Suero threw 11 pitches, only five of them for strikes, despite a cutter that topped out at an unusually high 96 mph.

“I felt real good today. But I think it wasn’t so much that,” he said about his command woes despite increased velocity, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “It was the fact that I felt my cutter was moving differently today than it usually moves.”

Whatever the reason, the bases were now loaded with nobody out, so Martinez pulled Suero and summoned Hudson to try to pitch out of the mess. The veteran fireman has been brilliant all season at wriggling his way out of such predicaments, but he wasn’t close to brilliant tonight.

Bryan Reynolds lofted Hudson’s first pitch to medium-deep center field for the game-tying sacrifice fly. Starling Marte then crushed Hudson’s 1-2 fastball away to right-center for a three-run homer that not only gave the Pirates the lead but some extra cushion for closer Felipe Vázquez.

“Obviously, I had Marte in a pretty good putaway 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: hit it hard.”

Add this to the ever-growing list of games the Nationals have given away late. They’ve now been ahead or tied in the seventh inning or later in 52 of their last 56 games, yet they’ve lost 16 of those contests that were right there for the taking at the end.

Strasburg-Fires-Gray-PIT-Sidebar.jpgTonight they wasted a lights-out pitching performance from Strasburg, who scattered four singles and a walk over his seven innings, none of which required more than 18 pitches from the righty.

Given the fact he averaged 102 pitches in his previous 25 starts, and the fact he had been held to fewer than 95 pitches only twice all year, the possibility of returning to the mound for the eighth inning tonight seemed logical. But he never got the opportunity.

“Davey thought it was enough,” Strasburg said. “I think we win as a team and we lose as a team. It just didn’t work out for us tonight.”

It didn’t help matters that a Nationals lineup that had scored 13 or more runs in each of its last three games was shut down by Pittsburgh’s pitching staff. Anthony Rendon’s RBI double in the fifth represented the entirety of the offensive attack.

An enticing matchup between Strasburg and Chris Archer lasted all of one inning. After escaping a top-of-the-first jam by striking out both Juan Soto and Asdrúbal Cabrera, Archer returned to the mound for the top of the second only to immediately walk off the mound shaking his head following an errant warmup toss. Within a minute, the right-hander was walking off the field altogether with what the Pirates later announced was right shoulder discomfort.

What looked like an advantageous scenario for the red-hot Nationals lineup - eight innings against a Pirates bullpen that already threw seven innings Monday night - instead proved far more daunting.

Clay Holmes, thrust into emergency long relief in place of Archer, proceeded to post three straight zeros and was two outs into the top of the fifth with the bases empty before his 64th and final pitch of the night struck Adam Eaton. Clint Hurdle signaled to his bullpen, and in came Michael Feliz to face Rendon.

Three pitches later, Rendon ripped a ball to the gap in right-center. Eaton scored from first, and Rendon coasted into second with his 34th double and 98th RBI of the season (two shy of his career high with 37 games still to be played).

The Nationals were on the board at last, but they needed that one run to hold up on a night when a lineup that spent the last week setting all kinds of scoring records suddenly found itself struggling to live up to its newfound reputation.

“We were prepared for Archie,” Martinez said. “Unfortunately, he got hurt, and I hope he’s OK. But then you get their bullpen in. The guys came in and threw strikes. And they held us down.”

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