WASHINGTON -- Chris Archer walked off the mound after pitching the first inning of his Major League career. In the rearview mirror were the seven batters the right-hander faced before finally retiring the side.
Only one of the three runs the Nationals scored in the first was earned, but they had scored three runs just the same. Many young pitchers would have wilted under that less-than-auspicious beginning. Not Archer, the 23-year-old right-hander went on to go toe-to-toe against Stephen Strasburg for the next five innings. Unfortunately, his stellar effort went for naught as the Nationals took a 3-2 win over the Rays at Nationals Park with 27,485 watching.
The Rays fell to 38-30 on the season to remain three games behind the American League East-leading Yankees.
Filling in for Jeremy Hellickson -- who went on the disabled list with a fatigued right shoulder -- Archer didn't fight his emotions prior to the start of the game.
"I shed a couple of tears," Archer said. "I went out there early because I knew I'd have to soak it all in."
Archer picked out his parents in the stands, then he located his friends. Friends whom Archer said know all about the work he did to put himself in the position he had put himself Wednesday night.
"There was no reason to hold it in, because it was joy," Archer said. "It wasn't like I was nervous or upset. It was pure excitement and happiness."
Archer, who came to the Rays in the deal that sent Matt Garza to the Cubs on Jan. 8, 2011, allowed an RBI single to Bryce Harper in the first and Harper later scored on shortstop Elliot Johnson's throwing error on a fielder's choice. Ian Desmond then singled home another run and the Nationals had a 3-0 lead.
Archer had no explanation for what happened in the first, but he did credit Carlos Pena for helping to put him on the right road.
"Mentally, I kind of slipped in the first," Archer said. "Then Carlos Pena came up to me in between innings and said, 'Look, this battle isn't against the Washington Nationals. This battle's against yourself, and tonight you need to conquer yourself.'"
Archer took that mentality back out to the mound and everything started to click. He did not allow another hit in the final five innings he pitched, facing the minimum and allowing only a walk that was erased by a double play.
"After that talk with Pena, I pitched pretty well," Archer said. "The leadership and everything, for him to take me aside and just have that conversation with me, it was awesome."
Pena seemed touched that Archer had mentioned their conversation.
"I just wanted to quietly go up to him and tell him what I thought," Pena said. "Just give him a message in a very humble way and grab whatever he liked from it and use it to his advantage."
While Archer had to wear the loss, his presence served as a great reminder of the depth of pitching that exists in the Rays' organization.
"It's unbelievable," Pena said. "What a performance that was today. That was impressive. We made some mistakes behind him, but in reality, he should have been the winner today."
Count Nationals manager Davey Johnson among those impressed by Archer.
"You have to tip your hat to that kid Archer," Johnson said. "He looked like he was awful nervous in that first inning, thought we had him on the ropes. He settled down and pitched a heck of a ballgame."
Archer's performance was all the more impressive considering the imposing presence on the mound for the Nationals in Strasburg. Rays hitters fought to get something going against the Major League's strikeout king.
Jose Molina broke the ice against the Nationals' ace with a solo home run in the second, his fourth of the season, and Hideki Matsui drove home Pena with a single to left with two out in the third to cut the lead to 3-2. But Strasburg didn't allow anything else.
The right-hander gave up two runs on five hits and two walks while striking out 10 in seven innings to pick up his ninth win of the season.
"He's got great stuff," Sean Rodriguez said. "He's got command of everything he throws. And pretty much he can throw any of his three pitches in any count. It's impressive. Especially being that young."
Rodriguez smiled when asked if Strasburg lived up to all the hype the Rays have heard about him leading up to Wednesday night's encounter against him.
"Yeah, yeah, he's definitely as good as they say he is," said Rodriguez, who paused a moment. "Except I want another crack at him."
Of note, Joel Peralta, the Rays reliever who is facing a suspension after getting caught with excessive pine tar in his glove Tuesday night, pitched in the eighth and retired both hitters he faced after entering the game to a chorale of boos.
But clearly the game belonged to Archer, who will likely make another start on Monday in Kansas City before returning to Triple-A Durham to finish out the season. Rays manager Joe Maddon agreed that he is a nice arm for the Rays to have in the bank.
"We've felt that all along," Maddon said. "We're just seeing flashes of what he's capable of doing up the road as he learns to be more of a strike thrower with the kind of stuff he has. ... As he learns to command that fastball where he wants to, heads up man, because you guys saw what kind of athlete he is."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.