WASHINGTON – Stephen Strasburg was at his dominant best in the early going Saturday, retiring 13 of the first 14 Cubs he faced, seven via strikeout.
And then it all fell apart for the Washington Nationals' right-hander after a teammate's error. The No. 1 overall draft pick in 2009 and NL All-Star in 2012 wound up dropping his fifth consecutive decision of 2013, slumping his shoulders and bowing his head while laboring through a 42-pitch fifth inning during an 8-2 loss to the Cubs.
"I tried to tell him ... 'You have to keep your head up, every time. You never can put your head down,'" Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos said. "Because every time, when he puts the head down, he loses focus."
Strasburg (1-5) hasn't won since opening day, April 1, against the lowly Miami Marlins.
"It's hard to explain. He was throwing good, good stuff. Hitting his spots," manager Davey Johnson said. "And then it seemed — where we needed him to pick us up, the air went out."
The first of Washington third baseman Ryan Zimmerman's pair of errors came with two outs in the fifth of a scoreless game, an off-target throw (he made a fielding error in the seventh).
Strasburg followed with his first walk, to No. 8 hitter Darwin Barney, he of the .160 batting average. Then up came opposing pitcher Edwin Jackson, who delivered a full-count double to right-center that made it 2-0. That accounted for Jackson's first hit and RBIs of the season; he'd been 0 for 10.
"If Strasburg punches him out there," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said, "it's a whole different ballgame."
Unraveling, Strasburg walked another batter and gave up Starlin Castro's single to load the bases. Anthony Rizzo grounded a single up the middle, the ball bounding into center to score two more runs. Instead of backing up home plate on the play, Strasburg ambled around on the infield grass and looked into the dugout.
All four runs were unearned, and Strasburg's ERA actually dipped to 3.10.
"I feel like I'm going out there and pitching well. Just not happening on the days I pitch right now," Strasburg said. "It's all going to change. It's still early, and all I can do is just go out there and give everything I have every fifth day. Whatever happens, happens."
Jackson (1-5), meanwhile, retired 12 of Washington's first 13 batters and allowed two runs and four hits in 5 1-3 innings. He earned his first victory under a $52 million, four-year contract he signed after leaving Washington as a free agent, and in doing so, ended the Nationals' five-game winning streak.
"It was definitely nice to get that monkey off my back. ... It felt about the same size as me," Jackson said.
"When things are going bad, you can fold and collapse," he added, "or you can continue to work hard and climb your way out of the hole."
Sounds like advice Strasburg might want to heed.
He entered Saturday with a 3.45 ERA and was averaging 6 1-3 innings per start; his five-inning stint against the Cubs was his shortest outing of the season. And, to think, he actually got some defensive help right before the problems arrived.
With one out in the fifth, Luis Valbuena laced a shot into the right-field corner for what should have been a stand-up double. Valbuena tried to stretch it into a triple and was thrown out at third, injuring the pinky on his right (throwing) hand in the process.
Strasburg, backing up third base on the play, pumped his right fist to celebrate.
Moments later, he was in a vastly different mood.
"He's too good a pitcher to let adversity behind him let him down," Johnson said. "He's certainly capable of picking us up. It's a team effort. And errors are a part of the game."
Shortstop Ian Desmond was asked whether he noticed Strasburg's demeanor change.
"It's hard to see emotion and things like that on the field, because I'm trying to watch the hitter, watch the pitch sequence, stuff like that. I would say (the media), the fans, things like that, probably have a little better visual of that than I do. But," Desmond said, pausing before adding, "it clearly wasn't the same."
NOTES: Desmond drove in both of Washington's runs. He had three hits — a homer, double and single — for the second game in a row. ... In the eighth, Cubs 1B Rizzo made a juggling catch of Zimmerman's popup to shallow right, tumbling head-over-heels and barely avoiding a collision with a teammate. ... Cubs 3B Valbuena was replaced in the bottom of the fifth because of the hurt finger, but Sveum said X-rays showed it wasn't broken. Sveum listed Valbuena as day-to-day. ... In Sunday's series finale, Nationals LHP Gio Gonzalez (3-2, 4.97 ERA) faces Cubs RHP Scott Feldman (3-3, 2.70).