There was a time, not terribly long ago, when the sight of Stephen Strasburg taking the mound was a confidence boost for the Nationals, not to mention a daunting prospect for the opposition. He was an intimidating presence on the mound, with a repertoire that left batters quaking in their spikes and fans on the edge of their seats.
How that version of Strasburg has morphed into this version of Strasburg — the guy who was roughed up once again Saturday by the Phillies during an 8-1 loss at Nationals Park, intimidating no one, looking like he had given up — is the greatest mystery facing this franchise right now.
"It looks like he lacks a little bit of confidence out there," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "Maybe he's fighting something mentally. But I have no doubt that he'll shake it off and come back just as good as ever."
The Nationals continue to espouse that same opinion, that Strasburg will bounce back and return to the form that defined his first five seasons in the big leagues.
"We're not concerned," manager Matt Williams said. "He's one of our guys. He been one of our guys. He will continue to be one of our guys. He's going through a rough stretch. It doesn't mean he can't come out of it his next start and be absolutely dominant. He has that capability every time he walks out on the mound."
Trouble is, Strasburg hasn't lived up to that capability in quite some time. He has reached the seventh inning only once this season (April 19). He has failed to get out of the fourth inning three times in his last four starts.
And the overall numbers are downright ghastly. Out of 110 qualifying starting pitchers in the majors as of early Saturday evening, Strasburg's 6.50 ERA ranked 109th, while his 1.69 WHIP, .321 opponents' batting average and 17.95 pitches per inning ranked dead-last.
Opponents have posted a combined .853 OPS against him this season. Three players in MLB history had a career OPS of .853: Honus Wagner, Eddie Collins and Billy Williams. All Hall of Famers.
"It's definitely something that I've never experienced before," Strasburg said. "I think it's a test. It's a test for me, and I'm gonna look at it that way and I'm not gonna quit. I'm gonna keep going."
The Nationals hoped Strasburg had made some progress in his last outing, when he allowed three runs in five innings in San Diego while displaying his best fastball command in weeks. But Saturday's start against the Phillies was a regression, with Strasburg unable to locate pitches and unable to put away hitters in 2-strike counts.
The result were several hard-hit balls in the third and fourth innings, including doubles by Cesar Hernandez, Ryan Howard and Odubel Herrera, plus a towering homer by Maikel Franco on an 0-2 fastball that was shoulder-high and right over the plate.
"A lot of damage with two strikes in the count," Williams said. "The base hit to Howard: fastball up. The homer was a fastball up, but still with two strikes. Just couldn't put them away today."
As the outing progressed, Strasburg looked more and more demoralized on the mound. He failed to back up the plate on multiple occasions, a lack of fundamental effort that wasn't lost on his manager.
"That's worked on more than anything else," Williams said. "And he's got to be in position in case something does get away."
Strasburg wasn't alone in sleepwalking through this game. His teammates were charged with four errors — all while he was on the mound — and could've been charged with more if not for a bizarre, Little League-style play in the sixth inning that was wiped out because Hernandez missed first base after driving a ball to right-center.
Those defensive gaffes typically make Williams' skin crawl, but given the fact his team had been very clean baseball while winning 18 of its previous 22 games, the second-year manager couldn't make too big a deal out of this particular performance.
"It was clunker, but all-in-all over the past couple weeks it's been darn good," he said. "So, I'm not worried about their intensity level, or anything of that nature. It was one of those games. It happens sometimes, but we'll get back at it tomorrow."
What, though, about Strasburg? The Nationals can no longer chalk up starts like this to being "one of those games." Everyone insists his status won't change and he'll be back on the mound for his next turn in the rotation — currently scheduled for Friday in Cincinnati — but with an off-day next week they could potentially skip him and give him extra time to work on things.
Whether any of that is the cure for whatever currently ails Strasburg is anybody's guess.
"He's a great pitcher, really," Desmond said. "I mean, there's not many better in the league than him. Sometimes as players, that's hard for us to believe, in ourselves. We're so hard on ourselves all the time. But especially when you're not getting results. ... He's still got it. He's throwing 96-97. All his pitches look good. It's just hits are falling through right now and mistakes are getting hit hard. That's just a stretch he's going to go through. You'd rather go through it now than later. But like I said before, I've got all the confidence in the world in him."