By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 2, 2010; D01
MIAMI GARDENS, FLA. -- On Saturday night, with first place suddenly in their sights, the Washington Nationals played the kind of the game they had seemingly buried in the dark recesses of their slapdash past. Their starter pitcher lasted four innings, their defense made two (official) errors and their bullpen exacerbated a deficit.
After their 7-1 loss to the Florida Marlins, the Nationals could take comfort only in knowing they have turned such performances, once common occurrences, into rare events. In front of 34,886 at Sun Life Stadium, the Nationals played to the expectations they carried into spring training, not the ones they built over the first month of the season.
Starter Craig Stammen, who had expressed reservations about pitching on six days' rest, couldn't record an out in the fifth inning and allowed three earned runs on seven hits and two walks. The Nationals' defense, a key factor in their hot start, did Stammen no favors, committing two errors and contributing to only the Nationals' fourth unearned run all season.
Manager Jim Riggleman absolved his players, saying the myriad mistakes did not reflect a subpar effort. "If we made a mistake, they've been mistakes of aggression," Riggleman said. "I think everybody played hard." That didn't make the final result any more palatable.
Tyler Walker replaced Stammen and effectively dashed hope for a comeback, surrendering two home runs and yielding three runs total in three innings. Meanwhile, the Nationals managed only four hits against Marlins starter Chris Volstad, who threw the second complete game of his career.
During April, the Nationals ascended near the top of the National League East precisely because they rarely played like this. When the Philadelphia Phillies trounced the New York Mets in the afternoon, the Nationals crept to within half a game of first place. If they could beat the Marlins, they would enter a tie for the division lead.
And then the Nationals actually took the first lead of the game. In the second inning, Adam Dunn doubled and scored on a sacrifice fly by Iván Rodríguez. From then on, Volstad, a 6-foot-8 right-hander, allowed nothing, just three hits -- two by Ryan Zimmerman, one of those an infield hit -- and a walk.
"He's very tall," Rodríguez said. "When you a guy like that throw the ball, it feels like it's coming from a building."
As their bats flailed, the Nationals pitching and defense suffered, too. In the first, Cristian Guzmán slipped trying to field a grounder. In the second, Dunn dropped a perfectly routine throw that negated an apparent double play. Neither play could be scored an error and neither led to a run, but they set a slipshod tone.
Stammen entered the night on the heels of two of the best starts of his career, a combined 15 innings in which he allowed five earned runs. Riggleman had moved him back one day in the rotation as a means to move up Scott Olsen and separate him from John Lannan, the Nationals' other left-handed starter. Combined with an off day, Stammen had to wait two days longer than usual to pitch.
"I don't like it," Stammen said Friday. "But we'll see how it goes."
After his outing snapped a string of eight consecutive quality starts, Stammen blamed only himself. Stammen is at his best when he throttles back, and Riggleman at times saw Stammen overthrowing. Stammen felt like he threw several sliders with too much zeal. "There's a fine line between going too soft and going too hard," Stammen said. Still, he declined to fault the extra rest.
"That's not a valid excuse," Stammen said. "I was probably a little strong today. I don't think that had anything to do with it."
The Marlins took a 3-1 lead after Nyjer Morgan turned a good play irrelevant with a bad one. With Cody Ross on third, having just tripled home a run, Gaby Sanchez smoked a sinking liner to shallow center. Morgan charged and made a nifty running catch, unable to notice that Ross had danced a couple steps off third base rather than tagging up.
"Just being aggressive," Morgan said.
Morgan buzzed a throw toward home plate. It sailed so far left that Rodríguez couldn't dive for it and Stammen could not scurry over to field it even though he stood in front of the backstop. Ross, standing at third, having given up on the play, bolted home. Rodríguez dashed back to the dish. They collided, Ross sliding in safely. Rodríguez jammed his right knee, but stayed in the game after a trainer inspected.
"I'm okay," Rodríguez said. "It's one of those plays that happens a lot in my career."
Walker entered and nearly escaped the jam. He picked off Chris Coghlan and struck out Hanley Ramírez looking at a slider. The Nationals were still in the game, down just two runs in the fifth inning. Walker could sense the momentum shift. He started Jorge Cantú with another slider, a strike. He threw the same pitch, which, Walker realized later, Cantú was looking for. Cantú blasted a two-run home run.
"I was probably getting one step ahead of myself instead of thinking pitch-to-pitch," Walker said. "It's definitely frustrating."
The Nationals remain just one game out of first place, with a chance Sunday to finish their road trip with a winning record. No matter how bad -- and it was pretty bad -- one night of baseball could not undo that.
"It makes you look worse than what you were," Riggleman said.