WASHINGTON -- The Nationals stood pat at Tuesday afternoon's non-waiver Trade Deadline because they believed in all the things their current roster is capable of doing right.
It seems only fitting, then, that Tuesday night's 8-0 loss to the Phillies at Nationals Park was a reminder of what can happen when everything goes wrong.
Stephen Strasburg had perhaps the worst start of his young career, giving up eight hits and six runs in only four innings. Opposing baserunners -- even Cliff Lee -- continued to run roughshod. The Nationals made mistakes in the field. And a lineup decimated by injuries only put together one real threat as Washington was shut out for the second time in four days.
Or, as catcher Jesus Flores summed up the evening, Strasburg "kind of started forcing himself to make perfect pitches, but it seemed like it didn't work out. I think we didn't play very good tonight, either."
Strasburg gave up two singles in the first inning but escaped thanks to a double play, then gave up a career-high-tying six earned runs over the next three innings. He was leaving pitches up in the zone, and his offspeed pitches were bouncing several feet in front of the mound. He said he could tell in his pregame bullpen session that he was elevating his pitches, but it's happened before and been easily corrected in the game.
Strasburg has only made two shorter starts in his career, and those were both due to physical issues. One was June 30, when the Atlanta heat got the best of him, and the other was last September, when he was coming back from Tommy John surgery.
"I think I threw one fastball down the way I wanted to, and that was the first pitch of the game," Strasburg said. "I feel like I'd get through a couple guys and feel like I'm getting in a groove, then all of a sudden go back to leaving pitches up and getting beat on them."
That was evident in the second inning, when Strasburg struck out two in a row then served up a first-pitch 95-mph fastball that Kevin Frandsen launched to center for a two-run homer. The third inning wasn't much better. Juan Pierre singled, stole second and third base then scored as Flores' throw sailed into left field. Strasburg admitted he was probably too focused on trying to throw the perfect pitch and lost track of the runner, but it's been an ongoing problem for the Nationals.
"That's one of the things that we haven't done well the whole season," Flores said.
Strasburg recorded one out in the fourth before things unraveled. John Mayberry doubled to left field and scored on a two-out single by Lee. Even worse, Lee went on steal second -- the second stolen base of his career.
Three pitches later, Jimmy Rollins bashed a fastball off the right-field fence. Bryce Harper tried to make the leaping grab but crashed into the wall and tumbled to the grass, and the ball bounded back toward center field. By the time center fielder Roger Bernadina came over to assist, Rollins had rounded the bases for his fourth career inside-the-park home run.
"It's tough," Strasburg said. "When you're always falling behind and they're aggressive like that, you've got to really fight yourself and just try to keep on trying to pitch and just let it happen. I had a tough time trying to get back into a groove."
Strasburg faced questions after the game about whether some of his recent inconsistency might be a product of that procedure, as it's completely normal for pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery to struggle with their location from time to time. But Strasburg didn't even entertain that idea.
Instead, Nationals manager Davey Johnson said starts like Tuesday's were just part of the learning process for a young pitcher like Strasburg, noting that the right-hander lost his poise when he realized he didn't have his stuff and couldn't locate the way he wanted to.
"It's a long ride. You can't be totally dominant every time you go out there, even if he expects it of himself," Johnson said. "It's just experience. He's a smart pitcher, he'll realize that."
Lee, meanwhile, was dominant. The Nationals loaded the bases in the third, but Lee and three Phillies relievers sat them down in order from the fifth inning on. Lee struck out seven and walked only one over seven innings.
Philadelphia went on to add two insurance runs charged to Nats reliever Henry Rodriguez. For all the Phillies' trades and signs of giving up on this season, they didn't look like a team that entered the night 16 1/2 games behind the division-leading Nationals. Then again, on this night, Washington didn't look like the team that came back home with the best record in baseball.
"We beat a good pitcher," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "We played a good game."