Associated Press photo
Stephen Strasburg suffered his first loss of the season this afternoon.
It may now also include the case of the unfortunately placed ointment.
As if the top of the first inning of today's 6-1 loss to the Padres -- featuring a routine fly ball falling between three Nationals fielders, a sudden deluge requiring an eight-minute rain delay and three San Diego runs -- wasn't strange enough for Strasburg, manager Davey Johnson suggested afterward his young ace was also bothered by the misapplication of some heating balm.
"I can't really tell you what the problem was, but some hot stuff got misplaced," Johnson said in cryptic fashion. "It was on his shoulder, and evidently ... I don't know how it got to where it got. But it was uncomfortable, to say the least."
Strasburg would not discuss the subject when asked about it and seemed perturbed his manager volunteered the information at all.
"You know, I'm going to keep that in the clubhouse," the right-hander said.
Whatever truly happened, it was only one of multiple calamities that befell Strasburg during what proved to be one of the least-effective of his 25 career starts. In lasting only four innings while allowing four runs, the 23-year-old racked up 81 pitches and put his team in a hole it couldn't escape.
"I think I can learn a lot from this outing," he said. "I've got to just find the positives and remember that there's always going to be days like this where nothing's really going your way."
It began only six pitches into the afternoon, when Will Venable lofted what looked like a routine flyball to shallow left-center field. Roger Bernadina, Rick Ankiel and Ian Desmond all pursued the pop-up, then all pulled up and watched the ball fall harmlessly to the ground for a gift double.
"It has nothing to do with communication," Bernadina said. "That ball, I should have caught it."
Strasburg tried to maintain his composure in the wake of the defensive gaffe, but it didn't take long before he had to deal with another distraction: A sudden cloudburst that sent the crowd of 23,902 scurrying for cover.
The umpires, led by crew chief Brian Gorman, let play continue under the poor conditions, and Strasburg clearly didn't look comfortable with it. He struggled to get a good grip on the ball, fidgeted with both the mound and the rosin bag and wound up walking two batters and allowing another single, loading the bases with two outs.
Then, with the count 3-2 to Padres catcher Jeff Baker and the rain coming down in buckets, Gorman finally pulled both teams off the field and called for the tarp.
"I mean, the ball was absolutely drenched," Strasburg said. "I probably could've hurt somebody."
Before the grounds crew could cover up the infield, though, the rain stopped. So after only an eight-minute delay to spread some drying agent on the mound, the plate and around the bases, Strasburg retook the mound, still facing Baker with the bases loaded, two outs and a full count.
"It's kind of like: OK, now I don't have any margin for error," Strasburg said.
The right-hander wound up grooving a fastball over the plate, then watched as Baker sent it scurrying back up the middle and past a diving Desmond for a two-run single that put San Diego up 3-0.
"But, I mean, you can pitch through those things," Johnson said. "Like I say, the fly ball dropping just exacerbates the situation. And then the rain delay doesn't make things easier."
Everything that transpired after that disastrous first inning almost seemed insignificant. Strasburg served up a solo homer to James Darnell in the third, then was yanked after laboring through the fourth. In the process, he saw his ERA jump to 2.25 from 1.64.
Facing a significant deficit, the Nationals could not produce a rally against Padres starter Anthony Bass. The 24-year-old right-hander carried a no-hitter into the fourth inning and carried a shutout into the fifth, until Bryce Harper belted his second home run in as many days.
Harper's blast into the center-field bleachers made him the first teenager to homer on back-to-back days since Ken Griffey Jr. in 1989, but it did nothing to spark his teammates into a late offensive splurge. Bass wound up tossing eight innings of five-hit ball before finally turning things over to flamethrowing closer Andrew Cashner.
"Good-looking young pitcher," Johnson said of Bass. "Thought we had him kind of on the ropes a couple times, but just couldn't get the hit."
The Nationals never came close to getting Cashner on the ropes. San Diego's young closer made relatively quick work of the ninth, ending the game with a flourish as he blew a 101-mph fastball past Harper.
Thus the Nationals trudged off the field following a rare lopsided loss, only their fourth this season by more than four runs.
But their first in a game that featured a botched fly ball, an eight-minute rain delay and, of course, some unfortunately placed analgesic ointment.
"It was just tough conditions all around," Strasburg said. "But I'm not one to make excuses. It's just one of those games where you go out there and do your best to overcome the obstacles. Sometimes you just can't get out of it the way you want to."