- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 20, 2005

By the time the 2005 season is complete, the Washington Nationals will have played the Florida Marlins a total of 18 times. And rarely will they find themselves in a matchup as favorable as they did last night, with staff ace Livan Hernandez taking the hill against replacement fifth starter Brian Moehler.

So it wouldn’t be a stretch to say the Nationals’ subsequent 6-3 loss to the Marlins before 25,990 at RFK Stadium was particularly frustrating for a club that knows it needs to take advantage of every fortuitous situation handed to it.

It was one thing when Washington lost to Dontrelle Willis, the National League’s hottest pitcher, Monday night. It was quite another to lose this one in such uninspiring fashion.

The Nationals haven’t exactly played inspiring ball against the Marlins this season. They’ve lost four of five head-to-head matchups, and at 8-6 sit in a first-place tie with Florida, one game ahead of the Braves, Mets and Phillies [-] their next three opponents.

“If you lose in this sequence of games, you’re going to lose ground to somebody in this division,” Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. “And if you win, you’re going to pick up ground on people. That’s the up and downside of playing your own division. But this is not critical. We’ve got too many games left in the season.”

Washington certainly had to like its chances for success entering last night’s game. Hernandez was coming off a brilliant near-shutout of the Arizona Diamondbacks in the home opener at RFK. Moehler, filling in for the regular Marlins fifth starter, injured Ismael Valdez, had not won a major league game since Aug. 16, 2002.

Yet it was Hernandez who looked lost and Moehler who looked like the seasoned veteran in a game that was for all intents and purposes over by the time the Marlins put up a five-spot in the third inning.

The Hernandez who toed the rubber last night hardly resembled the one who carried a one-hitter into the ninth inning five days earlier. He was in control from the very start of that one, working fast and keeping the Diamondbacks’ lineup off-balance. This one was tentative and frustrated from the beginning by plate umpire’s Marvin Hudson’s strike zone.

“[Hernandez] had good stuff tonight,” Robinson said. “He had a good fastball and he had a good breaking ball. But he had a disagreement with the umpire in the strike zone, and I think that affected his mental state out there and affected his game.”

That much was obvious in the third, when he walked Moehler on five pitches with one out and nobody on. It may have seemed innocuous at the time, but as Hernandez (1-2) put it, the walk “changed my whole game right there.”

The Marlins responded by opening the floodgates. Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo each singled. Carlos Delgado drove in the night’s first run with a sacrifice fly. Miguel Cabrera singled in a run. Juan Encarnacion doubled in another. And Paul Lo Duca brought them both home with a line drive single over shortstop Cristian Guzman’s head. Before Hernandez and the Nationals knew what hit them, they were staring at a 5-1 deficit.

“It happens sometimes,” he said. “It wasn’t my day. Maybe next time will be better.”

Moehler (1-0) couldn’t have many complaints after cruising through his five innings. The journeyman right-hander scattered six hits and two walks, but allowed just one run [-] on Hernandez’s perfectly executed squeeze bunt in the second.

That was the only time a Nationals hitter came through with a productive at-bat in the clutch. The rest of the lineup went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position, stranding 10 men, and that lone hit came on Nick Johnson’s RBI single in the ninth.

Washington’s attempts at a late rally came as no surprise. This club has now scored 40 of its 64 runs this season after the sixth inning, and Robinson hinted that lineup changes could be in store.

“I have to show confidence in these guys, but also start to figure out how to put up runs on the board, especially early in the game,” Robinson said. “We just don’t seem to be able to execute the things to get the runner across the plate early in the game.”

The player most vulnerable to a benching appears to be rookie center fielder Ryan Church, who went 0-for-4 last night, twice stranded two runners and lowered his average to .161. Reserve outfielder Terrmel Sledge, meanwhile, is hitting .286 and pushing for more playing time.

“I’m just going up there right now and I don’t really have a gameplan when I’m looking for the ball,” Church said. “You can’t do that here. It’s frustrating, but I’m going to work my butt off and hit my way out of it.”

Peter Lockley[ThSp]/[ThSp]The Washington Times

Vinny Castilla doubled over after a foul tip hit him in the shin in the sixth inning of the loss to Florida.

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