The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nationals’ skid reaches seven as Marlins’ Pablo López leaves them baffled

A sparse and bundled-up crowd looks on — along with a glum Nationals bench — during the ninth inning of Wednesday's 2-1 loss to the Marlins. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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And for their seventh straight loss, the Washington Nationals ran into Pablo López, one of the best starters in the majors through three weeks. The right-hander did not provide a path for Washington to shake its offensive funk. He did the exact opposite.

With six scoreless innings, López paced the Miami Marlins to a 2-1 win at Nationals Park on Wednesday night, giving them a chance to sweep Washington (6-14) on Thursday afternoon. López held the Nationals to three hits, shaving his ERA from 0.52 to 0.39 (one earned run in 23⅓ innings). They were no match for a change-up that faded from lefties and into right-handed bats.

The middle of their lineup — Juan Soto, Josh Bell, Nelson Cruz — finished 0 for 9 with three walks. Two of those came in the eighth, when lefty reliever Tanner Scott issued back-to-back, two-out free passes to Bell and Cruz.

Scott never would have appeared if Jesús Aguilar made a routine play at third. He then would have been out of the inning if Jazz Chisholm Jr. caught Soto’s sky-high pop-up on the right side of the infield. Instead, Anthony Bender replaced Scott and got Yadiel Hernandez to fly out to the warning track in left-center, stranding the bases loaded.

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The Nationals’ best “rally” of the night didn’t include a hit. Both dugouts thought Hernandez’s 107-mph drive was a grand slam off the bat.

“I still believe we’re taking too many fastballs,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “We just got to be more aggressive in the strike zone and be ready to hit early. That’s the only way we’re going to get out of it. The last 12 at-bats, I was just in there going over it with [hitting coach] Darnell [Coles] for a minute, and the last 12 at-bats were good. Now we got to do that throughout the game.”

When the season began, it was clear Washington needed Soto, Cruz and Bell to hide the rest of the lineup’s deficiencies. So what happens when they’re cold, too? Another punchless defeat. Bell, the most productive to date, was moved from the fourth spot to third Wednesday, replacing Cruz as Soto’s bodyguard. But the shake-up didn’t provide the intended spark. Not yet, at least, since Martinez could give it another look — and at this point, why not?

At night’s end, Cruz, signed for $15 million to protect Soto and thump homers, had an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .509. The 41-year-old is certainly not the Nationals’ biggest problem. Patrick Corbin, Stephen Strasburg, Victor Robles and Alcides Escobar are likely higher on that list. Center fielder Lane Thomas struck out four times Wednesday, three of them looking. Lucius Fox, who started in place of Escobar at shortstop, is 0 for 18 on the year and still looking for his first career hit.

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Yet Cruz has been much more of an issue than solution this month. An optimist might say it’s only April of a long season. A pessimist, though, could link together Cruz’s age and his rough go in the final two months of last year, when he struggled after being traded to the Tampa Bay Rays. The early results here have not been promising.

“Nothing in particular,” Cruz said when asked about his lack of production. “I feel like I’ve been hitting the ball hard. I feel like I’ve been having bad luck. It is what it is. Nobody is going to feel sorry for me. I’m the one who has to go out there and compete and do my job.”

How did the Marlins get ahead Wednesday? Aguilar took Erick Fedde deep in an inefficient outing for the Nationals’ 29-year-old righty. Aguilar took three close balls — two of them potentially missed calls in Gabe Morales’s inconsistent strike zone — before rocking a sinker out to center. After that, Fedde and reliever Andrés Machado issued three consecutive two-out walks in the fifth, the last one bringing in the Marlins’ second run.

Fedde, who typically thrives against the Marlins (9-8), needed 91 pitches to record just 14 outs, including 24 in a one-two-three fourth because Miami fouled off nine. He eased the use of his cutter, which Martinez recently called his best pitch, and mostly threw his sinker and curveball to the righty-heavy order. Because of a lack of deep starts, the Nationals have used at least five pitchers in each game of their losing streak.

When was the last time they dropped seven in a row? Aug. 28 to Sept. 4, 2021, a month after Washington traded away eight veterans at the deadline. But that skid didn’t even make it to Sept. 5 because the Nationals snapped it in the second leg of a doubleheader against the New York Mets. They have scored 14 runs on their current slide, an average of two a contest.

What’s the latest with Stephen Strasburg? The right-hander threw a 37-pitch bullpen session in West Palm Beach, Fla. on Wednesday. Joe Ross, rehabbing on a similar schedule, logged around 45 pitches. Both could face hitters soon in live batting practice, though Martinez said the same thing after their previous bullpen sessions. Strasburg remains sidelined after undergoing surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome last summer. Ross had a bone spur removed from his elbow in early March.

A few weeks later, Ross was shut down while Strasburg saw hitters on a back field at the team’s spring training facility. But Strasburg was set back when, as Martinez put it, “his mechanics were off.” Washington’s company line is that the club wants Strasburg to rejoin the team and stay. The not-so-subtle message there is that this could take a while.

What triggered perhaps the biggest cheers of the night at Nationals Park? Gio Gonzalez, a former Nationals starter, being introduced on the big screen between the bottom of the fourth and top of the fifth. Gonzalez was bundled up and sitting in the second row behind home plate with his family. He pitched in parts of seven seasons with the Nationals and retired after spending spring training with the Marlins in 2021.