ATLANTA — The red jersey on Stephen Strasburg’s back was practically maroon, drenched in sweat as soon as he took the mound. His movements were laborious, his breath heavy between each pitch.
It was 106 degrees Saturday afternoon in Atlanta, the hottest day ever recorded in the city and the air quality levels were considered to be at “code purple,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a “very unhealthy,” level. At Turner Field, a thermometer near the dugout showed temperatures close to 120 degrees.
For Strasburg, it was evident.
The Washington Nationals’ right-hander fought through three innings of the Nationals’ 7-5 loss in the extreme heat, but he was removed before the start of the bottom of the fourth with what the team called “heat-related issues.”
Strasburg was pale and dizzy on the mound and at the plate, wasn’t speaking well and was breathing heavily, manager Davey Johnson said. He received three bags of saline fluid intravenously after he was pulled.
“It was pretty scary,” Johnson said. “He was white as a sheet and I said, ‘That’s it.’ He wanted to go back out and I said, ‘No.’
“As ballplayers, we’ve played in heat all our lives, but it was pretty intense out there today. You compound that with the fact that each inning he threw 20-25 pitches and that didn’t make it any easier.”
Strasburg had been preparing for what was forecasted to be record heat in Atlanta on Saturday since he finished his previous start against the Rockies on Monday night. He had urged teammates to do the same, filled up on water and electrolytes, and followed the trainers’ advice on how to ready himself for his start.
After allowing three earned runs off two hits and four walks on 67 pitches, he was overwrought that he wasn’t able to continue.
“I just tried to prepare my best for this,” Strasburg said, a cotton ball and a bandage protecting the spot on the inside of his elbow where he’d received the saline solution. “I knew it was going to be really hot. I did everything I could. It’s just unfortunate I had to get taken out.”
“I didn’t know what was going on,” he added. “I just wanted to stay in and just push through it. … It’s tough. I feel like I let the team down today. It’s just something I’ve got to get over.”
Strasburg walked the first two batters of the game, Michael Bourn and Martin Prado, to open a 24-pitch inning, needed 21 more in the second and then walked Bourn and Prado again in the third — an excrutiating 24-pitch frame in which the Braves plated three runs. After hitting an RBI single in the second, Strasburg didn’t swing the bat once in a six-pitch walk in the third with home plate umpire Marvin Hudson also noticing the right-hander appeared dizzy and out of sorts.
Catcher Jesus Flores, who, like most players, took extra precautions to stay hydrated under the extreme temperatures, tried to calm Strasburg. He told him to take deep breaths and slow himself down. “But I knew at the same time, the weather wasn’t easy to handle,” Flores said.
According to the Mayo Clinic, heat exhaustion symptoms are heavy sweating, nausea, lightheadedness and feeling faint. Strasburg, who has said multiple times that he sweats “a lot more than most people,” exhibited all of those symptoms and had high blood pressure that didn’t subside until well after he’d been removed from the game.
The Nationals were unwilling to allow things to progress any closer toward heat stroke, which carries with it serious risk to major organs.
“I expected a lot more of myself,” Strasburg said. “By no means was I going out there thinking I wasn’t prepared for it. I did everything I could to be ready as far as hydrating and everything. I’ve just got to learn from it.”
Johnson received periodic updates from trainer Lee Kuntz as the game wore on and the Nationals, who were losing 3-2 when Strasburg exited, waged a comeback that they couldn’t quite complete. Chien-Ming Wang relieved Strasburg and gave up four runs in two innings of work.
“It’s obviously a great decision by Davey,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, a Florida native who remembered someone dying during baseball practice in high heat when he was younger.
Desmond said he altered his usual uniform by wearing a sleeveless undershirt and lighter socks, and the Nationals training staff was on the players all day to keep drinking and getting enough electrolytes.
“You preach to kids, ‘Hey, if you’re hot and you feel dizzy, come out of the game,’” Desmond added. “I was relieved they made the right decision and got Stras out and he didn’t give too much of a fight. It was a responsible decision. We all knew that he was going to try to get back out there. It’s the heat. We were all careful.”
The Nationals will likely have similar conditions to deal with on Sunday as they send Gio Gonzalez to the mound for a 1:35 p.m. start against Tim Hudson. Hudson, who dealt with dehydration issues after a 2011 start in Washington, has been preparing for the heat for several days. He told reporters Saturday afternoon that he planned to intravenously take two bags of saline solution before Sunday’s game to be ready.
For Strasburg, the Nationals didn’t appear concerned that he wouldn’t be able to bounce back in time for his final start before the All-Star break, which would come on Friday night.
“The doctors are obviously going to monitor him,” Johnson said. “He was really dehydrated. It’s serious, but it’s not something he can’t recover from.”