The way the night started, it seemed as if the recent magic the Washington Nationals have found -- especially at RFK Stadium -- might carry them to a sixth consecutive victory.
Catcher Gary Bennett threw out two base runners to help the Nationals escape the top of the first, and then, in the bottom of the inning, Brad Wilkerson floated a high-arching bunt that landed softly in the infield for a leadoff single.
Nationals pitching coach Randy St. Claire has a word with starting pitcher Tomo Ohka after he threw a wild pitch that scored a run in the fifth inning.
(John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
But scrappy defensive plays, fortuitous bounces and even the karmic energy surrounding the Nationals' first homestand were not enough to overcome another solid performance by Marlins ace Dontrelle Willis and a five-run seventh inning that keyed Florida's 9-4 victory in front of 24,003.
The loss was the Nationals' first at RFK, and it snapped their five-game winning streak. Florida improved to 7-6 and pulled within a game of Washington, still on top of the National League East at 8-5. The Marlins have beaten Washington three times in four meetings.
"It's just one of those things," outfielder Brad Wilkerson said. "We'll sit in here for 10 minutes or so and think about it and then get ready for [today] . . . They're not a bad team at all. They're not unbeatable, but they're not a bad team. We made some mistakes."
Florida's five runs in the seventh came with two outs and gave the Marlins a 9-0 advantage. And because of who was on the mound, that seemed like an ironclad lead.
Willis entered the game with a 2-0 record and a 0.00 earned run average. He had thrown shutouts in his first two starts, becoming the first pitcher to do so since Rick Mahler of Atlanta in 1982.
Willis seemed on his way to a third last night -- especially considering his first victory came at the Nationals' expense. The left-hander with the high leg kick and wicked three-quarter delivery gave up just five hits in his first start of the season, a 9-0 rout of Washington on April 8.
Save for Wilkerson's bunt and a double by Bennett in the third inning, Willis was unhittable through six. He had struck out four and walked none, and, heading into the seventh inning, had retired 12 straight Washington batters.
"He just locates the ball well," Bennett said. "He's got an unorthodox delivery, and he has great movement on the ball."
But Willis made a mistake with his first pitch of the seventh -- leaving a sinker up -- and Washington second baseman Jose Vidro made him pay, drilling it over the left field fence for his third home run. The shot ended Willis's stretch of 24 scoreless innings to begin the season.
"I didn't execute the pitch," Willis said. "I wasn't disappointed I gave up my first run or anything like that. All that stuff is eyewash. . . . The bottom line, the only stat I really care about is when I step on the mound, does my team win."
Immediately after Vidro's homer, Jose Guillen singled to left field. Vinny Castilla followed with a single to right field that moved Guillen to third, and then Nick Johnson laced a shot that bounced over the wall in left-center field. The double scored Guillen, moved Castilla to third base and brought Florida Manager Jack McKeon to the mound.
Antonio Alfonseca replaced Willis, but he lasted only two batters. The first National he faced, pinch hitter Terrmel Sledge, hit a ball to right field that seemed to ignite the smallest and quietest crowd of the Nationals' first homestand. Sledge's shot was caught at the warning track, but it served as a sacrifice fly that scored Castilla and brought the Nationals within 9-3. Alfonseca then hit Bennett, and was replaced by Matt Perisho, who recorded the final two outs of the inning.
Unfortunately for the Nationals, their bats awoke only after the Marlins' six-hit barrage in the top of the seventh that brought five runs across and put them ahead, 9-0.
"Our team went out there and they backed me," Willis said. "That's why it's called a team."
Nationals starter Tomo Ohka (1-2) lasted five innings, giving up four runs, three earned. With some help from Bennett, who threw out three Marlins, he kept Florida off the board through four innings.