MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. | For two straight games, the Nationals have stood at their lockers after losses and pledged that the next game would be better.
In the next game they’d cut down on making the little mistakes. In the next game they’d do a better job of hitting with runners in scoring position. In the next game they’d pick up their starting pitcher with significant run support and it would all lead to Washington capturing its second win of the 2011 season.
And for the first half of the Nationals’ 7-4 loss to the Marlins on Wednesday night, they were doing all of it — but for the third straight time and fourth in the season’s first five games, they couldn’t hold it together for nine innings and the same demons reared their heads to produce the Nationals’ first losing streak of the year.
“It is early but a win is a win and a loss is a loss,” said Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche. “They all sting the same. They’re obviously harder when you beat yourself.”
Things didn’t completely unravel for the Nationals until the fifth inning, but they weren’t exactly moving along swimmingly before that either. Livan Hernandez struggled with the strike zone all night, walking the bases loaded in the first inning but didn’t pay for it until he did it again in the fifth.
Hernandez, who surrendered four earned runs in the fifth, along with the win, allowed a two-out double to Hanley Ramirez and walked Gaby Sanchez and Logan Morrison before John Buck sent a 3-2 sinker off the wall in center field for a bases-clearing triple that missed being a grand slam by mere inches.
When Hernandez made his exit, getting a ground ball one batter later, he’d issued five walks. In his Opening Day start against the Braves, Hernandez walked none.
“I threw too many balls,” he said. “I threw a lot of pitches down and down and they’re not swinging. I threw a couple of good changeups and they’re not swinging so I can’t do nothing about it. I had a chance to maybe throw another pitch [to Buck] … I threw a curveball, foul, fastball, foul and I’ve got to die right there in the minute. I’ve got to let the guy hit the ball and he hit the ball good. It was one pitch down and away and he hit the ball very good.”
“It was two different performances,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “He was outstanding [at first]. And he got the pinch hitter to lead off the [fifth] inning so he had an out trying to get through that fifth inning and next thing you know … Livo was battling. He threw him everything he could throw him. The fifth inning was the story of the ball game.”
The same could have been said about the Nationals as a whole, who brushed off an extra-innings loss to the Marlins Tuesday night by getting to Chris Volstad early for four runs.
Previously hitless Ian Desmond was 3-for-3 with two RBI, two doubles and a bunt single in his first three at-bats and finished the night 4-for-5, but also committed his first error of the season in the sixth inning, allowing the Marlins sixth run to cross home plate.
Scoring three runs in the second inning, the Nationals put together a hit and run, a run-scoring fielder’s choice, a sacrifice bunt and an RBI bunt single. They were executing their small ball philosophy to the mark but for the second consecutive night the Nationals simply missed too many opportunities to add to that offensive output.
In the last two games combined they are 3-for-18 with runners in scoring position and their No. 4 and No. 5 hitters, LaRoche and Michael Morse were a combined 0-for-7 with a walk Wednesday night.
“We’ve just got to keep putting [the runners] out there,” Riggleman said. “The energy and attitude of the ball club on the bench, it pains them to have that happen the last couple of nights and they’re all saying the right things and they’re pushing and encouraging each other and I’m encouraged by that.
“You”e got to put [the Marlins] away when you’ve got an opportunity because they’ve got a good group there.”
Tempering panic early in the season can be difficult. The facts remain that the Nationals have played just five games this year and happen to have lost four of them. But the ways they’ve lost them — with sloppy play in the field, by walking batters and by failing to produce when they have the chance, are what are cause for concern.
To that end, Hernandez offered some perspective.
“We’re fighting,” he said. “We’re fighting for nine innings and we play hard for nine innings. You don’t win the World Series and you don’t make the playoffs four games or five games into the season. The season starts now. We’re going to play good baseball but we’ve got to put everything together.”
It’s a mantra they’ve uttered before — but once again they’ll need the next game to show that they can.