PHOENIX — The Diamondbacks returned from a 17-homer road trip to one of most hitter-friendly parks in the National League, but neither could offset the effortless 97 mph fastball of Stephen Strasburg.
The Nationals are committed to limiting Strasburg’s innings this season after he underwent Tommy John surgery two years ago, a position they have held since February, although it has become the source of national comment because they are leading the NL East.
It could not come soon enough for the Diamondbacks in a 9-1 loss Friday. The D-backs got only one hit off Strasburg, that coming when Chris Johnson celebrated his home debut with an RBI single to tie the score at 1-1 in the fourth inning.
The D-backs did not get another man on base until Jason Kubel doubled to open the ninth inning, and the Nationals supplied the power at Chase Field, getting a two-run home run by Ryan Zimmerman in the fifth inning and a bases-empty homer by Mike Morse in the sixth for a 4-1.
The game continued what has become a feast-or-famine sort of season for the D-backs.
While the Diamondbacks are among the National League leaders in most offensive categories this season, they have had an inordinate amount of unproductive games.
They entered the game fourth in the NL in runs, third in slugging percentage and second in on-base percentage. At the same time, they have played 29 games in which they have scored either one or no runs, a league high. They have been shut out seven times and scored one run 22 times — and they are 0-29 in those games. They are the only team in the league that has not won at least one game while scoring only one run.
Strasburg’s stuff provided the explanation Friday, but not all pitchers have a fastball in the highs 90s and two-plus off-speed pitches.
The D-backs were not sure what to make of that.
“I guess that just means hitting is contagious. When one guy gets going, everyone follows,” infielder Willie Bloomquist said.
“I’m not a big stat reader, but that kind of goes hand-in-hand with it being contagious.”
The D-backs (57-56) scored at least six runs in five games on their recent road trip, but they also were shut out in games started by Roy Halladay and Erik Bedard. They have been held to one or no runs in 11 of 28 games since the All-Star break, although it is not reflected in their record, as they are 15-13 in that stretch.
Once the Nationals took a 4-1 lead on the Zimmerman and Morse homers off Trevor Cahill, manager Kirk Gibson said he did not see a lot of zip in the D-backs, who returned from their 10-game trip late Thursday night and have played 28 of the last 29 days since the break.
“Didn’t have a lot of energy to overcome that tonight, to be honest with you,” Gibson said. “He pitched well. It’s good stuff. You have to play a lot better to beat that.”
The D-backs showed a patient approach off Strasburg (13-5), working five 3-2 counts in the first two innings while getting his pitch count up. Justin Upton and Miguel Montero drew full-count walks in the fourth in front of Johnson’s single, Montero having a nine-pitch at-bat, but Gerardo Parra grounded out to end the inning and the D-backs never got going after that.
Johnson was given a standing ovation when he batted in the second, his first home at-bat since joining the team in Los Angeles on July 30, and now has three hits in five at-bats against Strasburg in his career after going 1-for-2 Friday night.
“Just battling. Just trying to compete, really. I’m not going to say I’m comfortable against him. He’s really good, and he has really plus stuff,” said Johnson, who has 17 RBI in his 11 games with the D-backs.
Cahill, who had two quality starts on the road trip, gave up four runs in six innings and saw his home ERA jump to 4.97 in 11 starts. He has a 2.88 ERA in 12 starts on the road this season. The Nationals’ homers in the fifth and sixth inning made the difference. Zimmerman looked to be sitting on a changeup, and Morse hit a fastball. Cahill has given up 15 homers this season, nine at home.
The Nationals did to Cahill what the D-backs did to Strasburg, working him deep into counts. Cahill threw 104 pitches in six innings, one fewer than Strasburg.
“The guys I got ahead of, I couldn’t put away. They kind of made me work. I made a couple of mistakes, and they made me pay for it,” Cahill said.
“I knew it would be tough. Their pitching is so tough, I knew I would have to pitch pretty well. It’s always fun facing No. 1’s to see how you compare. Unfortunately I just couldn’t get it done.”