Facing his first true test as a Major League starter, Stephen Strasburg held his own for six innings, matching zeros with Atlanta Brave starter Tim Hudson. Then came the bottom of the seventh.
A leadoff walk to Chipper Jones, a single to Brian McCann and an Ian Desmond error loaded the bases with nobody out. Left fielder Eric Hinske sent a ball deep enough to center to drive in Jones from third to bring in the game's first run, which turned out to be more than enough for Atlanta. The Braves added on four more runs in the seventh, three more being charged to Strasburg, and won 5-0.
Strasburg's performance was a lot better than his final stat line. If you look at his first six innings, Strasburg surrendered zero runs, four hits, one walk and seven strikeouts. After Desmond's error in the seventh, the wheels came off the collective Nationals wagon. Reliever Sean Burnett made things a lot worse before anything got better, failing to record an out even though he kept the ball in the infield. Drew Storen would relieve him, ending the inning after a sac fly, a walk and a strikeout.
The story after Strasburg tonight, however, is the continued brown out that is the Nationals offense. Tim Hudson pitched amazing, going seven scoreless while letting up five hits, three walks and striking out six. The Nationals only extra base hit tonight was a Roger Bernadina double, and the team combined to go 0-6 with runners in scoring position. Bernadina was the only National with multiple hits. As a team, the Nationals have now dropped five straight, and are 2-8 in their last 10. They're now sit last in the NL East and sit 12 games behind the first place Braves.
Before Strasburg threw his first Major League pitch, I joked with fellow NatsBlog writer Ted Youngling that it was a good thing the Nationals called him up when they did, since his first four Major League starters were against teams full of Triple-A talent. Strasburg ran into the White Sox before they truly caught fire, so tonight was honestly his first real test. And, yes, his stat line looks rough if you take a quick look at it and didn't watch the game. But, those first six innings were impressive, and if Desmond fields that ground ball, we're looking at a completely different sixth inning.
Speaking of Desmond, 19 errors? That was honestly his 19th error on the season? He is DEAD LAST in fielding percentage, sitting at .945. For comparison purposes, Toronto's Alex Gonzalez, who sits 15th out of the 22 shortstops that qualify, has played 82 more innings defensively, has recorded 37 more assists, and has eight LESS errors. Desmond's zone rating of 4.755 is second worst, better than only Troy Tulowitzki's 4.545. The difference between Tulo and Desmond, though, is that the balls Tulo can get to, he usually fields cleanly. 19 errors, and we're not at the halfway point yet. Last year, Orlando Cabrera led all shortstops with 25 on the SEASON.
Good pitching always beats good hitting. But, it doesn't help when you're not hitting a lick against anyone recently. The Nats power has disappeared, and as Yogi Berra said, it's getting late early. The Braves are on fire, and they have Jurrjens due back soon for their rotation. The Mets have Jose Reyes and David Wright back on track and the 7-Train is rolling again. The Phillies realized how much they need Jimmy Rollins, and now they're rolling, too. It's becoming harder and harder to see how the Nationals can hang around if they don't start hitting right now. There are only two weeks until the All-Star break, and the Nats have two games left with the Braves then four with the Mets over July 4th weekend. If they get hot these next six games, they will have a pulse going into the break. If they continue to falter, I don't see a way the Nats can strike back in this division.