Photo by Rachel Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
J.D. Martin couldn't do the job tonight. Now Stephen Strasburg must do it tomorrow.
Fortunately, Stephen Strasburg is on the mound for tomorrow's series finale against the Indians. Unfortunately, he's being asked to stop a losing streak in only his second career start.
Such is life when you're the most-hyped pitcher in a generation and you surpass that hype by leaps and bounds in your big-league debut by striking out 14 and captivating an entire city.
It may be unfair of the Nationals to ask Strasburg to take on full-blown ace responsibilities at this tender stage of his career, but they have no choice. They need a win tomorrow in the worst way, and their best chance of making that happen is another dominant performance from the 21-year-old.
"Good guy to have out there," Ryan Zimmerman said after Washington dropped a 7-1 ballgame at Progressive Field that was as lackluster a game as this team has played all season.
Strasburg certainly has the potential to turn in a better performance than J.D. Martin did tonight. Even though the right-hander came within one out of a rare complete game in a loss, he didn't help himself by giving up four runs in a span of seven batters in the second. Martin came after the Indians with first-pitch fastballs, and they pounced on him, stringing together five hits in the inning to open up a 5-0 lead that was insurmountable with Fausto Carmona on the mound.
The Nationals had no answer for Carmona, a 19-game winner from 2007 who has only now begun rediscovering his old form after battling injuries the last two years. Armed with a devastating sinker, Carmona weaved his way through the Nats' lineup with ease, facing only 28 batters in a masterpiece of a performance. (The last Cleveland pitcher to go nine innings and only face one batter over the minimum? Why, Billy Traber, of course, on July 8, 2003 against the Yankees!)
"We've played 63 ballgames," manager Jim Riggleman said. "I don't want to show any disrespect for anybody else, but I don't know that anybody has pitched a better game against us this year."
The Nationals aren't hitting the ball as a team with any level of consistency. One night, they'll look like a legitimate offense. The next, they can't buy a clutch hit.
Riggleman has tried some different looks so far on this road trip, using the DH as an opportunity to give regular position players a pseudo-day off, but it hasn't worked yet. He'll try another look tomorrow against Indians lefty David Huff, using Ryan Zimmerman as DH, with Mike Morse in right field and Alberto Gonzalez at third base.
If that lineup can produce a few runs against Huff (owner of a 2-7 record and 5.46 ERA), the Nats will feel good about their chances with Strasburg on the mound. Of course, everyone will be expecting a duplicate of Tuesday night's performance, unfair as that is.
"I'm not going to fall into that trap," Riggleman said. "But certainly you can't fault our fans and others who are wanting great success. They want a great ballgame and they're excited about it. So I'm glad this is going on, and that expectations are high. But we know these are major-league hitters he's facing, and he's going to have some days where they're going to put some hits out there."
Yes, the day will come when Strasburg gets hit around. It's inevitable. But here's the thing: The Nationals can't afford for it to happen tomorrow. They can't afford to get swept by the Indians, falling back to four games under .500 and heading to Detroit for a tough series against Tigers.
He's been a major leaguer for all of six days. But you know what? The Nationals need Stephen Strasburg to be their ace right now.