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Nationals Are Swept Away by Marlins

Rally in 9th Falls Short As Team Drops to 0-3: Marlins 6, Nationals 4

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 9, 2009; Page D01

MIAMI, April 8 -- Patience is a counterintuitive way to fight a free fall, but it almost worked. In the ninth inning Wednesday, with their third consecutive loss just three outs from completion, facing a long plane flight to Atlanta, the Washington Nationals worked themselves back into the game against the Florida Marlins. A sequence of expert at-bats built the suspense. They loaded the bases. They scored a run. The possibility of a win -- finally -- came into focus.

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With two outs, Austin Kearns, among the team's hottest hitters, ground his cleats into the batter's box.

The at-bat articulated the larger challenge, too. The Nationals, both in the game and in their young season, needed to climb from a hole. Kearns had a chance to help. A single, and perhaps the Nationals could tie. A double, and perhaps they could do even better.

What happened next, though, only deepened the hole, raised the challenge and extended Washington's agony: Kearns hit a ball that everybody thought would tie the game, only it didn't. Florida left fielder Brett Carroll, recovering from a step in the wrong direction, dived at the last second and pulled a liner off the checkerboard grass. The Marlins won, 6-4, at Dolphin Stadium. Florida closer Matt Lindstrom watched the catch in left, slapped his leg with joy, and shook hands with his whooping teammates. The Nationals retreated to their clubhouse, their faces as long as their losing streak.

In several ways, Wednesday's loss represented progress. They got a mediocre start from pitcher Daniel Cabrera (six innings, five runs), a pleasant upgrade from the blowout-ensuring pitching performances in the season's first two games. And offensively, though the Nationals wasted several earlier scoring opportunities, they at least made Florida's pitchers sweat: By the time Kearns came to bat, Washington had walked 10 times. Even Lindstrom, in the ninth, had thrown 31 pitches.

"I'm not worried about us battling," Adam Dunn said. "We're not going to be a team that ever lays down. Ever. We're just not getting the big breaks."

Entering the ninth trailing 6-3, the Nationals relied on several of their most selective hitters, displaying patience not apparent in 2008. Lindstrom has one of the liveliest fastballs in baseball. Sometimes, it hits 100 mph. Oftentimes, it doesn't hit the strike zone. Here, Lindstrom was accurate enough, but Washington's hitters forced him to battle.

Nick Johnson, leading off, walked on five pitches; he never took a swing. One out later, Elijah Dukes roped the sixth pitch of his at-bat into left, a single. When Ryan Zimmerman's bouncing two-hopper to second -- potentially a game-ending double play -- was booted by Dan Uggla, the Nationals loaded the bases.

The next batter was Dunn. He fouled off four of the first eight pitches, then walked on the ninth to score a run.

Josh Willingham struck out.

By that point, Lindstrom had thrown 31 pitches, 12 balls, in the ninth. Washington had fouled off eight pitches, and hit just two into play.

Kearns came to the plate. Already, he'd scorched a run-scoring single in the first -- a liner hit so hard that it knuckled several feet to the left. One night earlier, in the eighth inning, he clobbered a home run off Florida's Leo Núñez, nearly sending it to the upper deck. Though Kearns aw-shucked the accomplishment, calling the pitch "a mistake, obviously," those on Washington's coaching staff saw greater significance.

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