It may have finally arrived, the point of the season at which things can’t get any worse - on the field, at least - for the Washington Nationals.
That’s a tough claim to make in a baseball season of moving averages, when one day can look like a turning point when viewed on its own and just another loss when seen with several weeks’ worth of perspective. But the bellwether signs of an irrefutable low point were all there Saturday night against the Florida Marlins.
The Nationals lost for the 90th time this season, guaranteeing their third season of 90 or more losses in five years (in addition to an 89-loss season) and dragging Washington’s losing streak to a season-worst eight games. And the manner in which they lost to the Florida Marlins was as listless and as ragged as anything the Nationals have done lately.
In the end, the 9-5 defeat was just another loss in a large grouping, no more significant or no less odious than any one of the half-dozen or so blowouts the Nationals have suffered against the Marlins this season. But the Nationals played Saturday night with the aura of a team that’s not likely to make a significant step away from this funk for the rest of the year.
“We’re not overmatched,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “I think offensively, nobody overmatches us. On a given night, we’re going to put hits and runs out there. We do that as much as anybody. Overall, we just haven’t pitched good enough.”
They fell behind the Marlins 3-0 after the first inning as starter Livan Hernandez alternated between missing the plate and tossing pitches right over it for the Marlins’ aggressive hitters. The deficit was 8-1 by the end of the sixth despite something of an off-night from Florida ace Josh Johnson.
And with the Nationals making small gains in the seventh inning, the night’s most symbolic moment took place: Pitcher Craig Stammen, due to have season-ending elbow surgery Sunday morning, trotted out to second base to pinch run because the Nationals were so thin on offensive options off the bench that they couldn’t afford to waste one running for pinch hitter Josh Bard.
It was one of the more futile moments in the ugliest stretch of the season for the Nationals, which, by the looks of Saturday’s game, could continue for a while.
Hernandez threw nine of his first 11 pitches for balls, and he didn’t stop there. He walked three batters and gave up three hits in the first inning alone, and while he settled down in the second and third, the Marlins put the game out of reach with three runs in the fourth inning, two of them coming on a Hanley Ramirez home run.
“That’s a good-hitting team,” Hernandez said. “You try to keep the ball down, but they’ll swing at the good pitches down. If I leave something up, they’re hitting it.”
And facing Johnson, a pitcher who has struggled against them in an otherwise stellar season, the Nationals could do little with the 6-foot-7 right-hander’s off night. Johnson threw 52 of his 82 pitches for strikes, walked three and was gone by the end of the fifth inning. But the first two innings ended with double plays, the second when the Nationals loaded the bases with none out, only to strand them.
“We put together great at-bats in the second inning, and we just couldn’t finish the inning off with getting more than one run off him,” Riggleman said. “Maybe that changes the complexion of the game a little.”
And Washington would not get another baserunner off Johnson the rest of the night, waiting until the seventh inning to show some life on offense.
By that point, it was too late to do anything but make the final score more respectable - especially with a lineup again partially composed of bench players and injury replacements.
If the Nationals’ losing streak is going to end sometime in the next week, it will have to be stopped with a victory against the Marlins or the Philadelphia Phillies. And that will take a far more passable effort than the one the Nationals turned in Saturday night.
“In the beginning [of the season], we knew we had a pretty good-hitting team,” catcher Wil Nieves said. “It’s tough, but it happens all year. Hopefully, we’re going to finish strong. That’s all we can do. But it is tough seeing the lineup that we have and seeing how many losses we have.”