Strasburg fades, 'D' falters in Nats' loss

Strasburg fades, 'D' falters in Nats' loss

ATLANTA -- Despite the heat and humidity, Stephen Strasburg appeared to be getting stronger inning by inning as the Nationals rookie matched Braves ace Tim Hudson pitch for pitch Monday night.

"I thought he might go eight innings for the first time," Nationals manager Jim Riggleman.

Instead, the game turned in the seventh. Hudson got out of trouble to keep the game scoreless. Strasburg couldn't, with the Nationals' defense letting him down.

"I feel for him. I feel for our whole ballclub," Riggleman said after the Braves used one big inning for a 5-0 victory that left Strasburg 2-2 despite a 2.27 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 31 2/3 innings over his first five starts.

"I definitely got a better feel [as the game went on]," said Strasburg, who turned away from his breaking ball early after having trouble controlling it.

But his fastball, which remained around 98 mph after hitting 100 on his fourth pitch, and a nasty changeup were enough to blank the Braves through six innings. Then came the seventh.

Strasburg was charged with four runs -- three earned -- in 6 1/3 innings, but he might have escaped unscathed if shortstop Ian Desmond hadn't booted a potential double-play grounder after Chipper Jones walked on four pitches to start the inning.

"I guarantee that Desi makes that play the next time," Strasburg said in defense of his fellow rookie.

The Braves ended up sending 10 men to the plate in the inning, with five of them coming up after Strasburg left the game. The right-hander was pulled after Yunel Escobar's single made it 3-0 in favor of Atlanta.

It was the first time that Strasburg had given up more than two runs in a game. His seven strikeouts were one fewer than his previous low. He allowed six hits and walked two, with 57 of his 92 pitches strikes.

"I understand that I'm not going to have lights-out stuff every time out there," Strasburg said. "I can't just eliminate one pitch because it's not working early on."

Strasburg's previous start was a 1-0 loss at home to Kansas City. Again the Nationals were shut out, as they lost their fifth straight and 13th in 16 games.

"We're going through a really tough time," Riggleman said. "Character is getting tested, and our guys have to pass the test."

The Nationals had a chance to break through against Hudson (8-3) when Roger Bernadina led off the top of the seventh with a double and took third on Desmond's sacrifice bunt. But Hudson struck out Alberto Gonzalez and got Strasburg to bounce out to shortstop.

Riggleman had Adam Kennedy ready as a potential pinch-hitter for Strasburg, but he had thrown just 74 pitches up to that point.

"I would have pinch-hit if it would have not taken a hit to score a run," Riggleman said. "I wouldn't have wanted to, but if we'd had a runner on third with less than two outs, I would have. In other words, if Gonzalez had walked, I'd put a pinch-hitter up there reluctantly.

"With the part of the lineup they had coming up, I felt like Stephen was the one I wanted out there. The odds of getting a two-out hit are pretty tough, and then I'm taking him out of the ballgame."

But Strasburg didn't seem to be the same after running hard to first on the grounder, and the Braves cashed in. Desmond's error hurt, and Ryan Zimmerman also booted a ball at third base, although that was called an infield hit.

"We got a ground ball," Riggleman said of the ball Desmond couldn't handle. "We just let the inning get away from us."

Atlanta definitely bought into all the hype surrounding Strasburg. His appearance attracted 42,889 -- Atlanta's largest crowd for a non-weekend game since Opening Day. The Braves reported that 9,601 tickets were sold on the day of the game and that 21,608 were purchased since Strasburg's previous start.

Jones, who was 1-for-2 with the walk against Strasburg, was impressed with the rookie, as he had expected to be.

"When you throw 98 [mph], you have to be ready for it," the Braves veteran said. "He didn't throw a lot of breaking balls, but he got a lot of swings and misses with his changeup."

Strasburg allowed four baserunners in the first two innings, but escaped thanks to help from the Nationals' defense. Left fielder Josh Willingham's throw cut down Melky Cabrera at the plate to end the first inning, and Strasburg got Gregor Blanco to ground into a double play to end the second.

Strasburg steadied, allowing just one more baserunner until the seventh. He struck out the side in the fifth inning and then fanned the first two batters in the sixth.

But after the Braves struck in the seventh and Hudson had the upper hand, he turned the game over to reliever Jonny Venters to complete the five-hit shutout.

"I wasn't good enough to win the game. Period," Strasburg said. "It's a really hard loss for us."

Guy Curtright is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.