Tough outings for Stephen Strasburg and Aaron Barrett dug the Washington Nationals (55-44) a hole they could not escape, despite some ninth-inning heroics, and they fell to the Colorado Rockies (41-60), 6-4.
Contrary to what the scoreboard might indicate, it was the Nationals who drew first blood. Denard Span singled to open the game, and a poor throw by Rockies second baseman DJ LeMahieu allowed Span to score on a Scott Hairston grounder.
Handed a lead, Strasburg (L, 7-8) got off on the wrong foot with a difficult first inning. The effects of Coors Field were clear, as his breaking balls hung and were crushed all over the field by the Rockies. Four hits, including two doubles, and a walk led to three runs for Colorado and an early 3-1 lead.
Both teams would settle in after an active first. Strasburg retired nine of the 11 batters he faced in the second through fourth innings, while Jorge De La Rosa tore up the Nats to the tune of eight strikeouts in four innings.
The Nationals clawed back to within a run in the fifth, when the third of Span’s four singles on the day brought Danny Espinosa home to make it 3-2. The bats seemed to wake up as the game wore on, as the Nationals recorded two hits in each of the fifth through seventh innings, but they could only bring home one run.
As it tends to in Colorado, the end came quickly for Strasburg in the sixth. He let two of the first three batters he faced reach, one of whom would eventually score, and got the hook with one out. His final line was not pretty: 5.1 IP, 9 H, 4 ER, 3 BB, 5 K. The atmosphere can certainly be identified as a cause for the hits, though the walks are more out of character for Strasburg. His control may simply have been off today, or he may have been afraid to throw in the strike zone after seeing how well the Rockies were squaring his pitches up.
In the seventh, the Nationals had an offensive chance, but a questionable order from Manager Matt Williams, coupled with poor execution, helped snuff it out. With runners on first and second, no outs, Williams ordered Span to bunt and advance the runners. The logic is clear, if inadvisable: the Nationals trailed by two, so this move would get the tying run into scoring position. But Span bunted too close to the pitcher, who was able to throw out Jose Lobaton at third. A strikeout and a groundout later, the runners were stranded.
Barrett let the game slip away in the seventh, as he was completely unable to control his pitches. A walk, a double, a pair of wild pitches, and a throwing error on Lobaton drove in two runs to double Colorado’s lead. Barrett’s ERA has jumped over a run, from 1.67 to 2.81, as he has given up five runs in his last five innings pitched, walking four and striking out six. Perhaps his struggles are why the Nationals seek to trade for another reliever, with an eye on sending him back to Syracuse.
Making a heroic comeback effort, five straight Nationals reached base with two outs in the ninth, cutting the lead to 6-4 and loading the bases for Ian Desmond, who was 6-for-7 on the year with the bases loaded. But LaTroy Hawkins struck him out to preserve the win for the Rockies.
Despite the loss, the Nationals will still hold a lead over the Braves in the NL East, even with an Atlanta Braves win. More troubling than the outcome was the news that Ryan Zimmerman will miss at least a few weeks with a strained hamstring. Espinosa figures to slide into the lineup for now, but the question remains as to whether the Nationals will make an addition via trade.