Nationals Fall to Marlins, 8-3

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

MIAMI, April 7 -- The Washington Nationals might not be this bad. Give them some time -- maybe another day or two, maybe another series -- and surely they will demonstrate the ability to fall behind by only a few runs, rather than a half-dozen. And maybe their starting pitchers can last four or five innings, rather than three. Surely sometime soon their steady third baseman will be throwing balls to the first baseman's chest, not his cleats, and right-hander Julián Tavárez -- the sort of relief-pitching blanket you only throw atop a raging fire -- won't be making his cameo before the stadium entrance lines clear.

Give the Nationals enough time, and they will return to the mean; debate all you want if that good fortune will also help them win with any regularity. After losing Tuesday night to the Marlins, 8-3, the 2009 Nationals have proven only an ability to turn an ugly season opener into an even uglier season-opening series. In front of 11,124 at Dolphin Stadium, the Nationals trailed 8-0 by the third inning. Starter Scott Olsen was bad against the middle of Florida's order and just as bad against its bottom. By the middle of the third inning, the Marlins (2-0) -- already with two home runs this game, four the day prior -- were on pace for more than 800 homers for the season.

At least Florida's Emilio Bonifacio didn't hit an inside-the-park home run. This time, he stopped at third.

Washington is now 0-2 because of a discomforting pattern. Its starters have combined for six innings and 14 earned runs. In both games, by the time its much-improved offense had risen from bed, stretched and brushed its teeth, the deficit was already too large. In both games, Ryan Zimmerman, who made just 10 errors last year, has bounced similar throws into the first-base dirt. In both games, Tavárez -- the top performer on Tuesday, with three scoreless innings -- has come on in the fourth.

"It's the second game of the year," left fielder Adam Dunn said. "I'm not conceding the season just yet. But we're just putting ourselves in an early hole as the far the scoreboard, and that makes it tough to come back."

Olsen, acquired from Florida in a trade this offseason, directed his homecoming parade into that hole. Before that trade, Olsen, who was drafted by the Marlins in 2002 and promoted to the big leagues in 2006, knew only one organization. He still lives in Miami. He considers several current Marlins among his closest friends. Following his three-inning, eight-run performance, he said only this: "Bad pitches get hit whether you know the guy in the box or not."

Olsen's first start with Washington was the 102nd of his career. Never before had the 25-year-old allowed eight or more earned runs in fewer innings. But this time around, Olsen committed too many mistakes. In the first inning, Florida's Jorge Cantú sent one of those mistakes -- an outside 82-mph offering -- towering into the atmosphere, dropping it just beyond the teal scoreboard in left. By the start of the third inning, Olsen and the Nationals were already down 3-0, and the mistakes kept coming.

There was a one-out walk. Then a Dan Uggla home run. Then another walk. Then, with two outs, a triple by the No. 8 hitter, catcher Ronny Paulino. Then an RBI single by pitcher Josh Johnson, who earlier in the game had walked on four pitches.

"He just couldn't make pitches," Manager Manny Acta said. "He even struggled to get the pitcher out."

Olsen's fastball, on this night, registered between 87 and 88 mph. His change-up, normally one of his top pitches, took an adrenaline shot and registered in the low-80s -- too fast for its purpose. As a result, pitching coach Randy St. Claire said, "there wasn't much of a difference. A lot of the change-ups I thought were fastballs."

As a final insult for Olsen, Bonifacio, part of the trade that brought the lefty to Washington, came to the plate. A day earlier, Bonifacio had engineered a career highlight, an inside-the-park home run that sailed just beyond the reach of center fielder Lastings Milledge. This time, Bonifacio ripped an 0-1 pitch that sent Milledge on a deja vu chase. Backtracking for the liner over his head, Milledge took a veering, unsteady path toward the ball. A near-catch nicked off his mitt, and Bonifacio, with sprinter's speed, brought the stadium's crowd to a half-rise. Bonifacio could have made a turn home -- it would have been close. But he took a tight turn around third base, and halted.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company