- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2012

MIAMI — Adam LaRoche stood at the plate in the top of the ninth inning Monday in a familiar situation for Washington Nationals‘ hitters.

Two men were on base with a chance to even the score. LaRoche saw three breaking balls from Miami Marlins’ left-handed reliever Mike Dunn, hefting a 4.98 earned-run average in search of his first career save. Then LaRoche took a 94-mile per hour fastball down the middle for strike three.

Another opportunity was lost and the game over, as the Marlins emerged with a 5-3 win to split the four-game series at Marlins Park.

Against Carlos Zambrano, the reclamation-project starter, and the Marlins’ rag-tag bullpen, the Nationals smacked hit after hit. But somehow, some way, those hits stopped when men were on base.

The Nationals stranded 10 men and hit into four double-plays to squelch an otherwise encouraging night at the plate.

“We had a bunch of chances,” said Ryan Zimmerman, who reached base five times. His long home run in the third on a 2-1 fastball from Zambrano landed in the Clevelander in left field, a night club open to the field complete with in-game dancers, a pool filled with blow-up floats and, yes, body painting.

That was as far as the Nationals (51-36) got.

“We’re putting ourselves in a position to score runs each game which a month ago we couldn’t say,” Zimmerman said. “If we keep doing that it’s going to even out over time.”

When men are in scoring position, the Nationals bat .242. On Monday, they were 1-for-8, including four missed opportunities from LaRoche. That drowned out 11 hits and five walks for the Nationals, as thunder boomed and rain scoured the $525 million stadium’s retractable roof much of the night. A few streams of water leaked through.

But for every Nationals‘ hit that leaked through, too, a double-play seemed close behind.  Like the fourth, when Michael Morse and Danny Espinosa, 3-for-4 with two extra-base hits, led off with singles. But Roger Bernadina, whose improvement at the plate manager Davey Johnson raved about before the game, promptly grounded into a 6-4-3 double-play.

“That was a rough one,” Johnson said. “We were in a position to win that puppy.”

The offense-challenged Marlins (43-46), on the other hand, made the most of each opportunity against Nationals‘ starter Edwin Jackson, rusty after not pitching since July 4.

“I wasn’t able to get in a rhythm,” said Jackson, after allowing four runs and six hits in five sluggish innings. “When I did throw strikes, they were right down the middle and they hit them.”

Hanley Ramirez took one of those pitches, a 1-0 fastball straight as Bryce Harper’s pine-tarred bat, and drove it 411 feet onto the faux waves on the hulking sculpture in center field for a two-run home run.

The Marlins used small-ball, too, like the two straight sacrifices to bring home Justin Ruggianio after a pinch-hit double to lead off the seventh.

The Nationals couldn’t find a way to convert similar chances and were left in a quiet clubhouse as movers waited to enter and the far-off thumping from the Clevelander’s dance floor drifted up the tunnel.

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