Washington Manager Frank Robinson said three times after his Nationals lost their second straight game to the Florida Marlins last night that this is not a critical stretch for his team's long-term success.
But that doesn't mean he is happy with the way things have changed in the past 48 hours, with the next five games coming against division opponents.
Carlos Delgado homers and helps the Marlins top the Nationals, 6-3, Wednesday to complete a two-game sweep in Washington.
(Joel Richardson - The Washington Post)
Another uneven starting pitching performance -- this time by ace Livan Hernandez -- coupled with dismal clutch hitting doomed the Nationals to a 6-3 loss before an announced crowd of 25,990 at RFK Stadium.
Two days ago, Washington was coming off a sweep of its first home series in 34 years, had won eight of 11, and stood alone atop the National League East. Now, the Nationals are in a first-place tie with the division bully Atlanta Braves coming in for two games, and then three at New York with the Mets, who have won seven of nine.
"We've got to get out of this thing before it becomes a real headache, a nuisance or an early panic button," Robinson said. "I want to get them to realize that two games ago we were on a five-game winning streak."
Robinson also wants them to realize they cannot wait until late in games to begin generating offense. Last night, after jumping to a 1-0 lead on a second-inning squeeze bunt by Hernandez, the Nationals squandered too many scoring opportunities for a team that does not have dependable starting pitching. Washington stranded nine runners in the first six innings, five in scoring position.
"We're giving away at-bats early in the game," said left fielder Brad Wilkerson, who struck out to end the second inning with a runner on second, and popped out to end the sixth with two aboard.
Robinson said he is considering a couple of tweaks to the lineup, perhaps altering the batting order a bit. He didn't make mention of any players, except for center fielder Ryan Church, who went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts and twice could not come through with two runners on.
"What I don't see out of him is he's not having good at-bats," Robinson said. "He's missing the off-speed pitches and he's not getting to the fastball.
"We just couldn't capitalize on the opportunities we had no matter who we had up there."
But when the hitting came around in the last two innings to plate two runs, the game was long over, thanks to a shaky outing from Hernandez. The Marlins scored five times on 38 pitches from Hernandez in the third inning. All five runs came with two outs.
The five most crucial pitches, however, were on a one-out walk to Florida pitcher Brian Moehler, which started the rally. Hernandez was at odds with umpire Marvin Hudson's strike zone all game long and Robinson came out to discuss it with Hudson after the top of the third inning.
"I tried to throw outside and the umpire wasn't calling it," said Hernandez, who allowed six earned runs on eights hits in five innings. "I think two or three pitches I threw to the pitcher was a strike.
"It changed my whole game right there."
Robinson said, "He let the strike zone and the umpire get in his head a bit and he lost his focus a bit."
It didn't get any better once Hernandez left the game after the fifth inning, trailing 6-1. Right-hander T.J. Tucker, pitching for the third straight day, winced after Pierre fouled off a 2-2 pitch with two outs in the sixth. After trainer Tim Abraham visited Tucker on the mound, Tucker walked off with a strained right groin.
"It was probably the worst pain I've ever felt," Tucker said. "I'm leaving the clubhouse on crutches.
"I don't know what happened. It just popped."
Tucker, who said he would undergo an MRI exam today, was placed on the 15-day disabled list and is expected to miss two to four weeks. To make room, outfielder Alex Escobar was moved from to the 60-day disabled list, and the Nationals will purchase the contract of veteran right-hander Hector Carrasco from Class AAA New Orleans.
"He is very dependable out there," Robinson said. "It's going to be a big hole in the bullpen for us."
In the bottom of the inning, third baseman Vinny Castilla fouled a 2-2 pitch off his left shin. After he shook it off, and took the next pitch for a called third strike, Castilla left the game, too, with a bruised shin. He said, however, he expects to play today.