WASHINGTON — At 4:12 p.m. Thursday, Roy Oswalt walked into the clubhouse looking like a man capable of turning back time.
The Rockies didn't require the Oswalt of 10 years ago. They just hoped he could transport them back to, oh, say, last weekend. That seems like a long time ago after the Rockies were muzzled 5-1 by Washington on a cool evening at Nationals Park despite 11 strikeouts from Oswalt.
"It was almost too many strikeouts. I had a few at-bats where the pitch count was climbing," Oswalt said. "I felt pretty good. I need to work on command of offspeed pitches. But the the guys are great here. This should be a great fit."
It would help if they stopped playing uphill.
Remember the Philadelphia Phillies series at Coors Field? The Rockies were assigned the role of feel-good story in the wake of painful injuries. Without shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and with center fielder Dexter Fowler barely able to swing a bat, Colorado smuggled two of three games from the National League East contenders.
This road trip has dished out cold-blooded reality, leaving the Rockies (37-37) at .500 for the first time since April 2.
Once rushing in one direction — like toward the top of the wide-open National League West — the Rockies are spiraling in another. It turned abruptly in Toronto, and returning to the states with a good ol' country boy on the mound didn't help.
Oswalt left his home in Mississippi for this opportunity, for a chance to show he had something left. He wanted to return to the National League and said: "I wasn't going to come back and embarrass myself. I was only coming back if I felt I could help a team win."
His fastball was electric, but not even he could prevent the Rockies' fourth straight defeat, tying a season high.
Expectations are fickle this time of year. A punch line in the early spring, the Rockies slugged back for 10 weeks. They have shown resiliency, but this is their biggest threat to relevancy yet. When they dissolved in St. Louis, little more than mannequins against the Cardinals' pitching staff, they had a homestand looming as a safety net. There are five more games remaining on this roadie, and they haven't led a game in 36 innings.
Oswalt showed plenty of promise, an undeniable upgrade over Jeff Francis, who accepted a minor-league assignment to Triple-A Colorado Springs on Thursday. Oswalt, who finished one strikeout shy of his career high, wasn't trying to trick anybody. Of his 101 pitches, 80 were fastballs. He reached 94 miles per hour consistently. His strikeouts were powerful, all but one coming on a heater (he fanned leadoff hitter Denard Span on an 84 mph changeup). Oswalt, wearing socks high and his familiar No. 44, didn't nibble.
"I tell you what, Roy looked as good tonight as he did 10 years ago in the playoffs when I faced him," Nationals slugger Adam LaRoche said. "He had some really good stuff."
Oswalt's final line was not indicative of how well he pitched. Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond crushed an 83 mph changeup for a home run, but two of the four runs against him were suspect. Shortstop Jonathan Herrera, part of the three-headed monster trying to cover for Tulowitzki, couldn't keep Kurt Suzuki's fourth-inning groundball in the infield, leading to a run. The ball ricocheted off Herrera's glove. He quickly retrieved it and threw home, but LaRoche was ruled safe, though replays showed Yorvit Torrealba tagged him.
With Oswalt in a fourth-inning jam, center fielder Tyler Colvin overran LaRoche's moon shot. It was ruled a triple, but it should have been caught as a sacrifice fly. Oswalt exited with the Rockies trailing by four runs.
It felt much worse given Jordan Zimmermann's metronomic efficiency. His outing ranked near Shelby Miller's and Adam Wainwright's as the most impressive against the Rockies this season. The right-handed Zimmermann threw 25 strikes in his first 28 pitches, the ultimate "here it is, try to hit it" statement. He worked eight innings, firing four straight fastballs to Michael Cuddyer for his final out.
It took a throwing error by second baseman Anthony Rendon, who is still learning the position, to help the Rockies sidestep their second shutout in four games. They have been outscored 20-6 during this stretch, and Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg looms Friday.
"We need to get a lead," first baseman Todd Helton said. "That would help."
Roy, oh, Roy
Roy Oswalt didn't deliver a victory in his first start, but his fastball was electric. The right-hander finished with 11strikeouts, 10 on heaters. National baseball writer Troy E. Renck breaks down his pitches:
• 101 pitches, 70 strikes
• 80 fastballs, 55 strikes
• 9 curveballs, 8 strikes
• 4 sliders, 3 strikes
• 8 changeups, 4 strikes
LOOKING AHEAD: COLORADO AT WASHINGTON
Rockies' Tyler Chatwood (4-1, 2.33 ERA) vs. Nationals' Stephen Strasburg (3-6, 2.50)
5:05 p.m. Friday, ROOT; 850 AM
It doesn't take long to figure out that the Nationals' offense has been awful. The starting pitchers' low ERA and their lack of wins is telling. In his first start since an strained oblique landed him on the disabled list, Stephen Strasburg allowed only one run in five innings Sunday but absorbed another loss. He has been dominant this year, his record notwithstanding. A year ago on June 20, he was 9-1 with a 2.46 ERA. Tyler Colvin is 2-for-3 against Strasburg with a pair of home runs. Tyler Chatwood should benefit from the extra day of rest in his second start since experiencing triceps soreness. Chatwood has been the Rockies' best starting pitcher, but they need him to work deeper into games. Troy E. Renck, The Denver Post
Upcoming Pitching Matchups
Saturday: Rockies' Jhoulys Chacin (5-3, 4.26 ERA) at Nationals' Dan Haren (4-8, 5.72), 10:05 a.m., ROOT
Sunday: Rockies' Jorge De La Rosa (7-4, 3.21) at Nationals' Ross Detwiler (2-5, 3.34), 11:35 a.m., ROOT
Tuesday: Rockies' Juan Nicasio (4-3, 4.78) at Red Sox's Ryan Dempster (4-8, 4.23), 5:10 p.m., ROOT