MIAMI – The Washington Nationals may no longer have to suffer under any delusions. The math says otherwise. Sheer probability suggests a shred of promise. But any realistic chance for them to reach the postseason may have ceased to be Friday night at the pitiless hand of Jose Fernandez. The Nationals dragged desperate playoff hopes into Marlins Park. Fernandez sneered and gave those a painless death.
In their 7-0 loss to the Miami Marlins, the Nationals avoided a grand embarrassment with a minor humiliation. Fernandez carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning, at which point Zach Walters stepped into the batter’s box for the first time as a major leaguer. The outcome of the game had been decided after Dan Haren’s three-inning implosion. If not for Walters’s swinging-bunt single down the third base line, Fernandez may have piled a no-hitter on top of a defeat.
The loss, coupled with the Cincinnati Reds’ victory, left the Nationals eight games out of playoff position with 22 games to play.
“It’s not looking good, that’s for sure,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “We’re in a spot now where we really can’t afford another loss. It puts you in a tough place, a bad place. You know, keep grinding. It’s not over until it’s over.”
The weekend schedule seemed to provide the Nationals a perfect confluence. As they started a three-game set with the lowly Marlins, the Reds began a series against the powerhouse Los Angeles Dodgers. The Nationals played the team with the worst record in the National League, and the team they were chasing for the second wild-card spot played the one with the best. If the Nationals were going to make a serious run, it would happen this weekend.
The schedule did not account for Fernandez, the Marlins’ 21-year-old force of nature. “Shoo-in for rookie of the year,” Manager Davey Johnson said. He may be more than that. Is there a better pitcher on the planet this side of Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw? It may be hard, after Friday night, to find a Nationals hitter willing to answer in the affirmative.
“I knew we weren’t going to get many,” Johnson said. “You’re up against a buzz saw.”
Fernandez allowed one hit — only Walters’s nubber — and two walks with nine strikeouts over seven scoreless innings. Fernandez overwhelmed the Nationals with laser-guided fastballs and knee-shaking curveballs and sprinkled in devilish change-ups just for fun. He struck out every Nationals starter except Ryan Zimmerman and Wilson Ramos. He struck out Ian Desmond three times on 12 pitches.
“His stuff is good,” Werth said. “You see him okay. You’re dealing with a lot of fastball. But you haven’t seen him a lot.”
Off the top of his head, Werth believed Cleveland Indians starters Justin Masterson and Corey Kluber had thrown the toughest games at the Nationals this season. Fernandez is “definitely up there,” Werth said. “This guy has been one of the best pitchers in the NL.”
Fernandez retired the first nine batters he faced in 36 pitches with five strikeouts. Meanwhile, the Marlins blasted Haren. The first four hitters he faced all reached, starting with Chris Coghlan’s double to the left field corner and ending with Giancarlo Stanton’s two-RBI single up the middle. In the third inning, Logan Morrison launched Haren’s 88-mph fastball into orbit, a two-run homer that landed five rows deep in the upper deck, an estimated 484 feet from home plate.
The Marlins led, 5-0, and Haren had cemented another short night. In his previous start, Haren had lasted 22 / 3 innings and yielded nine runs. Friday night, Haren recorded only one more out and gave up five runs on six hits and two walks. After a stretch of excellence, Haren has tumbled back into the results from May and June.
“I have no idea,” Haren said. “I’m at a loss for words with the way my season has gone. To be pretty bad for two or three months, and then have two months of being great, and then have two starts where I can’t get into the fourth inning? I have no explanation for it.”
After the Marlins battered Haren, the only drama formed around Fernandez’s dominance. In the fourth inning, his third baseman Placido Polanco walked past him and said, “Let’s get that no-hitter.”
Fernandez came into Friday with 12 innings left before he reached the Marlins’ 170-innings cap, put in place to protect a right arm that had never thrown more than 134 innings in a professional season. If he carried a no-hitter, how long would the Marlins let him go?
The Nationals never came close to a base runner until the fifth. With two outs, Adam LaRoche fell behind, 0-2, before he worked Fernandez’s first three-ball count. Then he took a 3-2 fastball just off the edge to give the Nationals their first base runner.
With one out in the sixth, Walters dropped the weighted donut off his bat and walked to the plate as a pinch hitter. At the University of San Diego, Walters’s first college at-bat came against a San Diego State ace named Stephen Strasburg. Having been called to the majors Tuesday, Walters’s first big league at-bat would come against Fernandez.
Back at San Diego, Walters had fallen behind against Strasburg before he flared a single just over the third baseman’s head. Against Fernandez, Walters swung at a 2-2, 81-mph curveball.
“Looking fastball,” Walters said. “And I didn’t get it.”
Walters barely touched it. The ball squibbed off the end of his bat and rolled toward third base. He paused, unsure where the ball had even gone.
“I had no idea where it was,” Walters said. “Everybody was like, ‘Run, Forrest!’ As soon as I saw where it was, I took off. I kind of knew it would be a hit.”
The awful contact led to perfect placement. Polanco charged and let the ball trickle toward third, hoping it would dribble foul. The ball stopped on the grass, some 80 feet from home plate. Walters stood on first base with Washington’s first hit and the first knock of his career. Fernandez looked over and smiled at him.