MIAMI — The Washington Nationals trudged off the field in silence Saturday night, their latest kick to the teeth delivered by the Miami Marlins in walk-off fashion in the bottom of the 10th inning. They did not stay to witness the youthful Marlins’ dogpile near the first base bag. They did not stand and watch the Marlins celebrate a victory that’d been as good as theirs just an inning earlier.
Instead, they slipped into the visitors’ clubhouse at Marlins Park to digest in the heavy quiet what had gone wrong in the 2-1 loss that left them needing a victory on Sunday to avoid entering the All-Star break as a sub-.500 team.
There were the failings of the offense, again.
There was the hanging cut fastball left over the plate by closer Rafael Soriano, attempting to get three outs and protect a 1-0 lead, to the only true threat in the Marlins’ lineup: Giancarlo Stanton. And the two-base error by Chad Tracy, double switched in at third base, to open the 10th inning that put the winning run on.
There was the ejection of Bryce Harper, a result of his arguing with home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt in the eighth inning, that brought Scott Hairston to the plate in his place with two runners on and one out in the top of the 10th inning. The Nationals did not score then, and they lost the game in the bottom of the frame.
All of it played a part. All of it boiled down to another loss for the Nationals. Another strong starting pitching performance wasted. Another necessary win gone by the wayside.
“This is a tough one today,” said right-hander Dan Haren, the unfortunate victim of a no-decision after pitching six scoreless innings and allowing just three hits in his finest performance in weeks.
“Honestly with all All-Star break so close, (Sunday’s) a big game for us. Just finding a way to win (Sunday) and then everybody can sit back after that. It’s been a lot of ups and downs. We definitely haven’t played to our potential.”
Their potential, of course, was what had most expecting them to be marching their way toward a second consecutive division title and, many figured, far deeper. Their reality is that on Saturday night they had seven hits, worked five walks, and scored once. They fell seven games behind the Atlanta Braves.
Harper provided their only production, scoring in the fourth inning after reaching on a walk by Marlins All-Star rookie Jose Fernandez, moving into scoring position on a base hit and barreling into catcher Jeff Mathis on Jayson Werth’s sacrifice fly.
But he also removed himself from the equation in the later innings with his ejection. The Nationals rebounded from Soriano’s fourth blown save by putting two runners on with one out for what was supposed to be Harper’s spot in the order.
Hairston struck out in his place, and Ryan Zimmerman did the same on three pitches. Inning over. Threat over. The question of how it might’ve been different with Harper was left open.
“I usually try and say the right things, I guess, but we’ve got to have our three-hole hitter in the game right there. Simple as that,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, who stood on first during that sequence after a base hit.
“The person who hits three-hole is usually your best hitter and one of your better players, usually the best. There’s no doubt that his skill set is there but he cannot, in a one-run ballgame (get ejected). We need that game. That’s a game you have to stay in, no matter what.
Harper was incensed by Wendelstedt’s zone. He voiced his displeasure after he was called out on strikes to open the sixth inning on two pitches that were well outside the zone. But he threw his arms in the air after he was called out on a borderline pitch in the eighth and his ejection quickly followed.
“I looked back at him, gave him a piece of mind, got out what I wanted to get out, and he threw me out,” Harper said.
Harper felt Wendelstedt “took the bat out of his hands.”
Soriano felt he just made “one bad mistake.”
Tracy said his throw “came out wrong.”
Ultimately the reasons why mattered less than how this game fit into the overall picture of their season: as another opportunity missed.
His frustration obvious, Johnson responded to a question about his offense’s futility by saying he planned to try and shake up his lineup again for the first half finale on Sunday.
Until then, they had to sit on another loss and turn their hopeful focus toward the next game.
“It’d be nice to go into the break with a win,” Tracy said. “That’s for sure.”