US Presswire photo
Stephen Strasburg was pulled in the fourth inning with "heat-related issues."
Strasburg thought he had prepared for this. He'd known since making his last start Monday in Colorado -- where the gametime temperature was a record 100 degrees -- what awaited him in Atlanta, and according to teammates had been taking precautions for several days in anticipation of this outing.
But as the Nationals right-hander very slowly walked off the field in the middle of the fourth inning, his shoulders slumped, his uniform sopping wet, it was obvious to Davey Johnson what needed to be done.
"When he came back in, he was white as a sheet," the manager said. "And I said: 'That's it.'"
Thus ended the shortest start of Strasburg's season in disturbing fashion. As the young ace retreated to the air-conditioned clubhouse to receive three rounds of IV fluids and other treatments to address what the Nationals called "heat-related issues," his teammates fought their way through another five innings of torturous baseball, ultimately taking a 7-5 loss to the Braves that didn't seem as serious by day's end than Strasburg's health.
"It's obviously a great decision by Davey," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "You preach to kids: 'Hey, if you're hot and you feel dizzy, come out of the game.' I knew a kid who died at a young age in Florida. He felt like he was hot, he kept on practicing. And the next thing you know, he was gone. I was relieved they made the right decision and got Stras out and he didn't give too much of a fight. It was a responsible decision."
Shortly after this 3-hour, 14-minute ballgame played before a crowd of 26,491 that tried to seek refuge by retreating to the few covered sections of the stadium, Strasburg stood in front of his locker, a bandage covering his inner left elbow at the site of the IV injection. He seemed dejected that he couldn't pitch deeper into the late afternoon.
"Obviously I want to go out there and compete, and I expected a lot more of myself," he said. "By no means was I going out there thinking I wasn't prepared for it. I did everything I could to be ready for it as far as hydrating and everything. I've just got to learn from it."
Strasburg warmed up in the bullpen wearing a navy blue pullover, perhaps not wanting to soak his red game jersey before he ever threw an official pitch. It didn't take long for that to happen, though; by the time he walked off the mound following a 24-pitch first inning, he already looked fatigued.
Strasburg did contribute to the Nationals' cause. He actually delivered an RBI single in the bottom of the second after the Braves intentionally walked catcher Jesus Flores to load the bases for the pitcher (who now boasts a .375 batting average and 1.090 OPS).
But he really struggled during the bottom of the third, issuing two walks and two doubles and needing extra time between pitches to catch his breath and wipe sweat off his brow.
"I tried to go up there a couple of times, just calm him down and tell him: ‘Hey, breathe. Take your time. Just trust yourself'" Flores said. "But I knew at the same time, the weather wasn't easy to handle it."
In between innings, Strasburg tried to cool off in the air-conditioned clubhouse. But he had no time for that after the third inning because he was due up third. He trudged to the plate, intending never to take the bat off his shoulder, yet still was forced to trot to first base after Atlanta lefty Mike Minor walked him.
By the time that inning ended and Strasburg slowly made his way to the dugout, Johnson realized he couldn't allow this to continue any longer.
"It was pretty scary, and he wasn't talking too good," said the manager, who also said the pitcher's blood pressure was "way up." "I found out later that he got a little dizzy while he was out on the mound. The problem was he was totally dehydrated."
Chien-Ming Wang had already been warming in the bullpen for an inning, just in case a change needed to be made. Because Strasburg (who wound up throwing 67 pitches) was being removed from the game due to a physical ailment, Johnson asked the umpiring crew to give Wang as much time as he needed to warm up.
Wang, a native of Taiwan who has become accustomed to pitching in excessive heat and humidity, wasn't so much fazed by the conditions as much as his continued inability to locate his bread-and-butter sinker. The veteran right-hander wound up getting tagged for four runs and five hits in two innings, turning what was a close game into a sizable deficit.
It was the latest in a string of poor outings by Wang, whose ERA now sits at 7.61 as he tries to right himself out of the bullpen.
"Coach gave me this opportunity," he said through interpreter John Hsu. "I just need to do my best and try to get myself back, just like before."
The Nationals' patience with Wang (who was re-signed for $4 million in November) appears to be running thin.
"He's just not right," Johnson said. "His release is not right, and I'm concerned about it. He's a veteran pitcher and it's not really spring training. We're in the heat of battle. So I don't know."
The date of Wang's next appearance remains to be seen. The date of Strasburg's next appearance tentatively remains Friday, against the Rockies in Washington. That's his final scheduled start before the All-Star Game, an exhibition he's likely to find out Sunday he'll participate in for the first time in his career.
"It's serious," Johnson said of the dehydration. "But it's not something he can't recover from."
A native of San Diego, where the temperature rarely exceeds 80 degrees, Strasburg knows he's going to have to deal with plenty more hot summer days on the East Coast.
He'll continue to prepare as well as he can, even though the precautions he took before Saturday's game still prevented him from overcoming the extreme elements.
"It just didn't seem to change the symptoms or anything," he said. "It's tough. I feel like I let the team down today. It's just something I've got to get over."