MIAMI — A lack of offense and an unsteady bullpen weren't supposed to be the Washington Nationals' problems. Starting pitching was the only thing keeping this club from improving on last season.
It's too early to tell whether this current reality, where everything assumed about the Nationals turned out to be false, is permanent.
But games like yesterday's 6-1 loss to the Florida Marlins are a case study in just about everything that's going wrong for the Nationals right now — everything but starting pitching.
Odalis Perez gave up just one unearned run in six innings, but the Nationals didn't get a hit until the fifth inning, gave up a homer to Hanley Ramirez in the seventh, left the tying run at third in the eighth and watched Ramirez blast another ball out of Dolphin Stadium to punctuate a fun-house scene in that same inning.
It cost them a chance to win their first series since they ran their record to 3-0 with back-to-back victories over Philadelphia, it sent them to Atlanta with a 5-14 record and their old nemesis Tim Hudson waiting for them, and it wasted another strong performance from a group of pitchers that couldn't do much more.
Perez, John Lannan, Tim Redding and Shawn Hill have a combined 3.52 ERA the last four days — and they have one win to show for it.
"Our starters have been giving us enough innings and enough chances," manager Manny Acta said. "But it's not easy to win 1-0."
That possibility went away in the first inning, when Ryan Zimmerman sailed a throw over Aaron Boone's head at first that allowed Dan Uggla to take second base. Jeremy Hermida brought him in with a single. But while the Marlins got four more hits off Perez, only two came with less than two outs.
Perez had a chance to get his first win when Austin Kearns tied the game in the fifth inning with a leadoff homer to left, but that was the end of any meaningful offense for the Nationals. The next-best thing was Boone's double off the left-field wall in the eighth, but Nick Johnson and Felipe Lopez struck out to end the inning.
"I'm as frustrated as anybody," catcher Johnny Estrada said. "We're just playing losing baseball right now, bottom line. We need to scratch and claw our way to some wins."
That wasn't happening yesterday. Instead, it was the Marlins who put the game away in an odd sequence in the eighth inning.
Saul Rivera, who gave up Wes Helms's game-winning single on Saturday night, allowed a one-out double to Jorge Cantu. Then Lastings Milledge lost a fly ball in the sun, and it turned into a double for Cody Ross.
"I knew where it was going to land, but it was too late before I saw it again," Milledge said.
Rivera even had a chance to escape, but after working Luis Gonzalez to an 0-2 count, he issued a two-out walk that brought Ramirez to the plate. Then things got weird.
He threw a fastball that sailed past Estrada, bounced off the backstop and went straight up in the air. Estrada caught it on the fly and flipped it underhand to Rivera. But Cantu collided with Rivera right as the ball arrived, and Ross came in as it skittered away.
Then, as if to erase any doubt, Ramirez crushed the next pitch 427 feet to center field for his second homer of the game — though this one was actually four feet shorter than the shot he hit one inning earlier off Luis Ayala (0-1).
It was Ramirez's fifth career two-homer game, and his first since Sept. 11, 2007, also against the Nationals. Rivera hadn't given up a homer in 428 batters.
"The inning turned out to be pretty ugly, but it starts there [with the walk]," Acta said. "You get 0-2 on Gonzo and end up walking him with Hanley on deck. Not the matchup you're looking for. But all that was irrelevant. We knew we weren't going to win 1-0."
A lack of offense leading to fielding mistakes, leading to an untimely walk, leading to a home run. If that's a microcosm of the Nationals' issues, things might be worse than if their starters did turn out to be their downfall.
WASHINGTON NATIONALS AT ATLANTA BRAVES
Where: Turner Field, Atlanta
Today: 7:10 p.m., Nationals LHP Matt Chico (0-3, 4.81) vs. Braves RHP Tim Hudson (2-1, 3.38).
Tomorrow: 7:10 p.m., Nationals LHP John Lannan (0-2, 4.86) vs. Braves RHP John Smoltz (3-0, 0.56).
Series breakdown: This is about the worst recipe possible for a struggling Nationals offense. Hudson is 6-1 lifetime against Washington with a 1.11 ERA, and Smoltz is 21-11 with a 2.58 ERA against the Nationals (dating to when they were the Montreal Expos). But considering they'll follow this with Johan Santana and the Mets on Wednesday night at Nationals Park, there's no way for Washington's hitters to bust out of their slump other than to attack some of the game's best pitchers. It also will be a chance to see whether Chico and Lannan can develop some consistency; Chico's best start of the year was against the Braves, as was Lannan's worst. It's probably a bit much to expect Washington to start a winning streak here, but if one of their young left-handers can steal a game from the Braves' top starters, that's a sign of progress.
— Ben Goessling