Washington Nationals fall to Chicago Cubs, 4-0, ruining fine start by Jason Marquis

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Jason Marquis delivers to Chicago Cubs' Starlin Castro during the first inning of their baseball game at Nationals Park in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2010. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Washington Nationals starting pitcher Jason Marquis delivers to Chicago Cubs' Starlin Castro during the first inning of their baseball game at Nationals Park in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2010. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) (Susan Walsh - AP)
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2010; 12:07 AM

Jason Marquis experienced something new walking off the field Wednesday night. The scoreboard still blank over his left shoulder, Marquis heard what it sounds like to be cheered at home as a member of the Washington Nationals. The portion of the 18,344 at Nationals Park rooting for the home team stood and applauded as Marquis disappeared into the dugout in the eighth inning, a redemptive moment in his brutal season.

The crowd saved its boos for the end of the inning. Marquis's triumphant 7 1/3 innings came undone in a handful of pitches by Tyler Clippard, and a feel-good night devolved into a fourth consecutive defeat, a 4-0 loss that sealed a Chicago Cubs sweep and sunk the Nationals closer to the bottom of the National League.

The Cubs arrived in Washington one of three NL teams with a worse record than the Nationals. Now there are two. The Nationals dropped to 53-74 overall, better than only the Pittsburgh Pirates and Arizona Diamondbacks, on pace for 67 wins.

"I don't know what the right word is," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "I'm certainly disappointed in our record. I know our guys are playing hard. They're giving effort. The intensity is there. The hurt is there. We're suffering, you know? We don't like getting beat. I'm sick of it. I know our players are."

For so much of the night, Marquis provided a surprising bright spot. He entered with an 11.39 ERA but had given reason for optimism in his previous start, holding the Philadelphia Phillies to one run in five innings. On Wednesday, for one night, he was as good as the Nationals could have hoped when they signed him to a two-year, $15 million contract.

No Cubs base runners made it past second base while Marquis was on the mound. He allowed four hits and three walks, and when he exited the Cubs still had not scored. His ERA, for a moment, had fallen to 8.48, nearly three full runs. Marquis pitched with a renewed confidence, inducing 10 groundball outs and throwing 19 first-pitch strikes to 23 batters.

"That's what I've done over last few years," Marquis said. "It was definitely exciting to get that feeling back. That's Jason right there - attacking the zone, aggressive, conviction."

In the eighth, Marquis walked Tyler Colvin and retired Kosuke Fukudome only after Nyjer Morgan made a running basket catch on the warning track in right-center field. Manager Jim Riggleman determined that Marquis, having thrown 98 pitches, had done his part. Riggleman called on Clippard, and instantly the game fell apart for the Nationals.

After Colvin stole second, Starlin Castro, the first batter Clippard faced, smoked a double into the left field corner. "Really, really bad change-up," Clippard said. Two batters later, Aramis Ramirez launched a two-run homer into the left field seats. The Nationals trailed, 3-0.

"J pitched a hell of a game, man," Clippard said. "That's the most frustrating part of it. I could care less about giving up my own runs. J pitched a hell of a game, and I took the wind out of our sails. We played a great game, we were in it. Those are the games I want to be in, and I haven't been getting it done. It's got to get better. Got to."

Not all of the blame can be placed on Clippard, since no team has have ever won a baseball game without scoring a run. Ryan Dempster stifled the Nationals for seven innings, holding them to two hits, one of which came on a soft liner by Marquis. The Nationals finished with four hits. Take away their three-run spasm in the ninth inning Tuesday, and the Nationals have scored two runs in their past four games.

As the Nats have slumped, Adam Dunn has had unfortunate timing for his worst drought of the season. Dunn, still second in the National League with 31 home runs, is 5 for his last 41 with no homers and eight walks. Riggleman spoke with Dunn after the game and said Dunn is "adamant that, 'Hey, I don't need a day off. I'm going to get there.' I thought that speaks volumes for him and his confidence."

In the end Wednesday, the crisp defense and strong starting pitcher turned into an increasingly familiar result. When Dunn flied to the warning track for the final out, there were no more cheers, and nothing about it felt new.

"No one ever expects this," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "No one wants to lose. If you thought this year we were going to win 80, 90, 100 games, I would believe that, obviously, because I think we can win. But we're still learning. We're still growing. Do I think we've played as well as we could? No. It's not easy to lose."

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