CINCINNATI — Chris Marrero settled into his position at first base Saturday night, the moment for which he had waited five years. Marrero envisioned a rapid path to the major leagues when the Washington Nationals drafted him as a 17-year-old with the 15th overall pick in 2006. That was before he switched positions twice, before he broke his leg and before played at every level minor league level. “Not everybody takes as long as they imagine,” he said.
When Marrero dreamed about the first time he stepped on a big league diamond, it surely never unfolded like the first play he made in his major league debut, a 6-3 loss to the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park that gave the Nationals a five-game losing streak. Marrero booted the first ball hit to him in the majors, one of two errors he made that led to runs.
“Not what I expected,” he said.
Marrero also gave himself a memory he wanted, notching his first career hit in his second at-bat and redeeming himself in the field with two slick scoops at first. From the stands, his parents, Bladimir and Dania, watched alongside his sister Christina and his girlfriend. Marrero saved the ball from his first hit. He planned to give it to his father.
“If I told you I wasn’t nervous, I’d be lying,” Marrero said. “It was my first time here. But I was definitely excited. I guess as the game went on, after I got my first hit and, you know, I would say I felt more confident. I felt comfortable.”
The Nationals’ loss dropped them back into fourth place in the National League East, a half-game behind the idle New York Mets. They have shifted priorities from strictly winning into preparation for 2012, evidenced Saturday night by Marrero at first, Jayson Werth in center field and Michael Morse in left. For a team looking toward the future, the Nationals could have done worse.
Five members of the Nationals’ infield – third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, shortstop Ian Desmond, second baseman Danny Espinosa, starting pitcher Ross Detwiler and Marrero – were drafted and developed by the franchise, three of them first-round picks. Add catcher Wilson Ramos, and their entire infield unit ranged in age from 23 to 27.
The present, though, only damaged the Nationals’ hopes to finish .500, their latest loss dropping them seven games below that pace. Detwiler, hurt by Marrero’s miscues, allowed six runs, three unearned, on eight hits and a walk while striking out four in six innings. The Nationals managed less than four runs for the fifth straight game, their only offense coming on solo homers by Ramos, Werth and Morse.
“So we’re over that conversation, another position affecting them,” Manager Davey Johnson said.
The Nationals went 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position, dropping their four-game total to a hard-to-fathom 2 for 47. This season, the Nationals are hitting .224 with runners in scoring position, second-worst in the majors and 22 points below their batting average in any other situation.
“If we knew the answer I think we’d do a better job at it,” Werth said. “It’s a mystery to me. . . .It’s almost unacceptable. It’s not almost, it is unacceptable. If you want to win, you’ve got to drive them in. Bottom line.”
Their struggles in scoring chances, in part, have left the Nationals in a situation unfamiliar to Werth and perfectly normal to the franchise he is now apart. For the past four seasons, Werth has pushed toward the postseason with the Philadelphia Phillies. Now, he is part of a team experimenting for next season and breaking in young talent.
“It’s going to be different,” Werth said. “I really do think it’s very important. Playing in the minor leagues and being a prospect is a lot different from winning the World Series. There’s a lot of things you’ve got to learn along the way. You just don’t wake up in the morning and come to the field and win a World Series.”
Marrero is part of that young talent, but he got off to an unfortunate beginning. On Detwiler’s fourth pitch, Brandon Phillips rolled a groundball straight at Marrero. He bent over to field the routine play, and the ball skipped off his arm and dribbled away.
“I got to catch that ball,” said Marrero, who had slashed his errors from 18 last season to five this year. “I’ve shown it all year that I can catch that ball down there. I just want to prove here that I can play defense. I should have caught that ball.”
Phillips moved to third on a pair of outs, then scooted home after Detwiler uncorked a wild pitch as he slipped on the mound. The Nationals took the lead in the third, when Ramos and Werth each smashed solo home runs, Ramos for the second straight day. Ramos’s 12th home run of the year, and 11th as a catcher, broke Brian Schneider’s team record for homers from a catcher.
The Reds immediately retook the lead, again aided by Marrero’s miscue. With men on first and second and no outs, Joey Votto hit a broken-bat groundball to Marrero. He pivoted and fired to second base, trying to start a double play. The ball whizzed past Desmond and into left field. Phillips scored as Morse held the ball. The Reds tacked on two more runs with sacrifice flies, taking a 4-2 lead.
“The throw just got a little bit away from me,” Marrero said. “I probably didn’t set my feet like I should have. Those throws have to be made. Those plays have to be made at this level.”
Said Johnson: “Shoot, I’ve seen Brooks Robinson make three errors in a game. It’s unfortunate. I’m sure he was a little jittery, a little nervous. But he handled himself well.”
Marrero’s night improved from there. He smoked his first career hit in the fourth inning, a scalded single to left field. In the fifth, he scooped Desmond’s throw from deep short to retire Dave Sappelt at first, and he robbed Sappelt again in the seventh, on another low throw from Desmond.
The Nationals would not overcome Cincinnati’s lead, though, even after Morse blasted a home run 438 feet and into the upper deck in the eighth inning. Their future is starting to arrive, but it still remains brighter than their present.
“It was great,” Marrero said. “It was exciting. I had fun today. I just hope it’s one day of many more.”