Power Ball: Marlins Still Have Nats' Number

Nationals base runner Lastings Milledge is out at second base as Florida's Dan Uggla turns the double play.
Nationals base runner Lastings Milledge is out at second base as Florida's Dan Uggla turns the double play. (By Alan Diaz -- Associated Press)
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 14, 2008

MIAMI, Sept. 13 -- Top to bottom, their lineup is all horsepower -- 30 homers jammed into the leadoff spot, 16 homers in the No. 7 spot. The Florida Marlins are baseball's answer to the pickup truck, and they run on a Hemi.

"Impressive," Washington third baseman Ryan Zimmerman called them.

"I mean, you sit back and look at their lineup," Willie Harris said. "Their whole infield has 25 home runs. Those guys can hit, man."

The Marlins win games like Saturday's 4-2 decision against the Washington Nationals at Dolphin Stadium not because they hit often, but because they hit it far. The Marlins were out-hit; it didn't matter. The Nationals received a solid six innings from starter Tim Redding; it didn't matter. Indeed, home runs overpower everything, and because of two early two-run Florida homers, the Nationals could never recover, losing their fourth in a row, their sixth in the last eight, and -- most instructive -- their 12th in 14 games against Florida.

The Marlins are a young team, like Washington, but they are not a model for replication. As currently assembled, the Nationals envision future teams built on speed, defense, and maybe the occasional homer. In Florida, though, long balls are the defense system. They've hit 82 more home runs this season than Washington -- a number Manager Manny Acta knew (and cited) just minutes after this one ended.

"Their power," Acta said, summarizing the difference. "Power kills, and they have it. We have to put together a few hits to score runs, and they just -- with one swing, they put two on the board. They did it twice, and that was enough."

Entering Saturday's game, Florida had a .250 batting average, just one point higher than Washington. Still, they had scored 102 more runs. That gap is due in large part to the teams' power differential; the Marlins rank third in baseball in home runs (192), and the Nationals rank fourth-to-last (110). A pitcher facing a lineup with such home run proficiency -- as Redding did on Saturday -- runs the risk of a night where the earned runs outnumber the mistakes.

Mistake No. 1 came in the form of a belt-high slider in the first to Jorge Cantú, which the third baseman punched over the left field scoreboard for a two-run homer. Mistake No. 2 came one inning later, when shortstop Hanley Ramírez hit one of those stand-and-watch blasts to left, such a energizing shot that even the fans in the second outfield deck -- where the ball eventually landed -- were jumping up and down as they watched it sail. Florida's second two-run homer of the game opened up a 4-0 lead. When Ramírez touched home, he punctuated the moment by raising both hands to the sky.

The superlatives followed. Ramírez's 30th made Florida just the second team in major league history (along with the 2001 Oakland Athletics) to have three infielders with 30 or more homers. Against Washington this year, the Marlins have clobbered balls over the fence with historic regularity. The two they hit against Redding -- diminishing an otherwise strong six innings -- boosted their total in 14 games against the Nationals to 23. Spread across a season, that's a 266-homer pace. The all-time baseball record for homers in a season: 264, by the 1997 Seattle Mariners.

"Yeah, I don't really know what the approach to them is, seeing as how they have my number this year," said Redding, 10-9 overall, 1-3 against Florida. "They've been able to hit the ball around the ballpark on us as a team all year. So, you know, you just have to hopefully catch them on a day when your stuff as a pitcher is electric and they're popping up a lot of balls instead of hitting them out. They don't hit a lot of ground balls, either. It's a lot of fly ball outs with these guys. That's how they approach hitting as a team, and it's helped them out for quite a while this year."

Florida's power has underwritten its success against the Nationals this year. In the 14 meetings this season between these clubs, Florida has hit at least three homers five times. Only seven times this year -- in 148 games -- have the Nationals hit three or more. As a result, on a night when both teams come to the yard with their standard-issue offense, the Nationals are in trouble.

Against Florida starter Josh Johnson, Washington couldn't score until the sixth, when an Elijah Dukes double off the left field wall scored Zimmerman and Lastings Milledge, both of whom had singled. But the Nationals couldn't close the gap against any of Florida's four relievers, and as a result, Acta finished the night by talking about a different gap -- measured by 82 home runs.

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