MIAMI — Late Wednesday night, they sat with their arms hung lifelessly over the dugout railing, watching the final outs of a miserable series go by. Over their three days in Miami, nothing the Washington Nationals did was enough.
They connected on countless pitches that would have seen them circling the bases in most other ballparks. They led early in every game of the series, only to watch it slip away as the Miami Marlins’ fearsome heart of the order beat them late and consistently.
They arrived at Marlins Park early Monday morning flying high, if a little sleep-deprived. They were 5-1 through two-thirds of a challenging nine-game National League East swing and had just swiftly, dominantly, completed their first sweep of the season. No matter what they did, they couldn’t leave Miami anywhere but in first in the NL East.
But instead of padding that lead, they allowed the Marlins to welcome them to their new ballpark with familiar treatment. In the Nationals’ 5-3 loss, the Marlins pounced on Chien-Ming Wang’s lack of command, his sinkers that didn’t get down in the zone enough. They allowed the Nationals’ offense to get just close enough to think they had a chance and then slammed the door.
It was like watching a movie reel on repeat. For three straight days. Three straight two-run losses.
“We hit a hot team at the wrong time,” said left-hander Ross Detwiler, who pitched two innings of scoreless relief as he and Wang swapped places for the first time this season. “We’re still in first place. We have to go out there Friday [against the Atlanta Braves] and say, ‘We’re still in first place. We’re still the team to beat.’”
Wednesday’s formula may have rotated in various starring players from the previous nights, but the result was much the same. It was Danny Espinosa who ignited the offense, along with Steve Lombardozzi and Adam LaRoche with multi-hit games. It was Roger Bernadina who joined Espinosa as the only National to drive in a run.
But for the Marlins, nothing changed. Hanley Ramirez still hurt the Nationals. Giancarlo Stanton still killed them. It was Ramirez’s fifth-inning leadoff double that served as the winning run. And it was Stanton’s second monster home run in as many days that put the game entirely out of reach two innings later.
The most troubling for the Nationals, though, was Wang, who walked three, allowed seven hits and four runs in a laborious four-plus innings of work. Staked to a two-run lead in the top of the fourth, the sinkerballer opened the bottom of the frame with eight balls in his first nine pitches. He walked the first two batters he faced. They both came around to score. The Nationals never led again.
“I wasn’t locating the ball very well tonight,” Wang said through translator John Hsu. “Sometimes my body opened too early, so I couldn’t get the ball down very well. And sometimes I was too high. I’m kind of disappointed in myself for the performance.”
Five days ago, the Nationals knocked Detwiler out of the rotation so they could return Wang to it. While Detwiler admits he has plenty to work on during his time in the bullpen, Washington was not hoping for starts like this one in the meantime.
“I think it’s just rust,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “I thought his stuff was good, but his command was off. When you get him throwing close to 80 pitches in not even five innings, that’s no command.”
It’s not, however, an audition. When Detwiler struggled for the third straight outing in Atlanta on Friday night, Wang’s relief appearance seemed to be the end of his rotation stay. But it will not work so quickly the other way around, Johnson said, though he didn’t leave it in ironclad terms.
“I know I’m going to get those questions,” Johnson said. “But Chien-Ming is a quality pitcher. Obviously he had some rush on him … but I like the way the ball was coming out of his hand. He’s in the rotation. He’s replacing a guy that threw the ball pretty good for me, but I like the upside of Chien-Ming. We’ll just play it by ear as it goes.”
The Nationals will have a day off to rest and hope to welcome back slugger Michael Morse for Friday’s game. Time, perhaps, will heal the sting of what could have been. The division, which they’ll remain kings of by a half-game, will still be beckoning when Atlanta visits D.C. for three.
“It’s not fun to get swept,” Johnson said. “But we’ll show up Friday.”