MIAMI — Bryce Harper trudged back to the Washington Nationals’ dugout, bat still in his hand. He fumed over the weak flare he slapped to end a nine-pitch at-bat. As he walked down the steps that lead to the visitor’s clubhouse at Marlins Park, Harper snapped the partially broken bat in two over his knee. A shard of wood shot into the air, and he disappeared down the tunnel.
Frustration filled the Nationals’ 5-3 loss to the Miami Marlins on Monday night, a defeat that left them with a split series against a reeling opponent. They held the Marlins scoreless in every inning but two. They hit into four double plays, two of them on line drives. They stranded 10 men on base and went 1 for 8 with runners in scoring position. Line drives found gloves and sharply hit balls killed rallies. Despite three hits each from Ryan Zimmerman, Danny Espinosa and Michael Morse, they walked off the field with only thoughts of what could have been a happy plane ride home.
“Well, that was a rough one,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “We had our chances to win that ballgame. It just wasn’t meant to be.”
The Nationals flew back to Washington to start a crucial homestand against division opponents that will last through the weekend. They play the New York Mets for three games and then the Atlanta Braves four times. They have a chance to effectively knock the Mets, currently six games behind them, out of the race. The Braves sit 21 / 2 games behind the Nationals, and so their set, which includes a doubleheader Saturday, may determine which team stands in first place.
“It’ll be nice to go home and get after some other boys,” Johnson said. “I think we’re in good shape. The whole lineup’s swinging the bat good. Our pitchers are throwing the ball good. Bring ’em on.”
They first had to swallow Monday night’s loss. The fitting ending may have stung most. With two outs in the ninth, Harper kept the game alive with a first-pitch, opposite-field single off left-handed reliever Mike Dunn. Zimmerman followed with a walk, bringing the go-ahead run to the plate. Adam LaRoche struck out on a half swing, the game ending with his bat suspended over the plate. Harper and Zimmerman jogged off the field. The rest of the Nationals gathered their things in the dugout and headed for the clubhouse, 11 hits not enough.
“We hit some balls hard and some balls right at people,” Zimmerman said. “It’s just one of those games. But I guess that’s better. We’re putting ourselves in a position to score runs each game. A month ago, you couldn’t really say that. As long as we keep giving ourselves opportunities like we hit the ball today, I think it’s going to even out.”
The overheated tempers from Sunday, when Ozzie Guillen cursed at Harper over the amount of pine tar on his bat, never surfaced Monday night. In the first inning, Marlins starter Carlos Zambrano walked Harper on five pitches, and the issue was forgotten.
The Marlins added a key insurance run in the seventh, when Emilio Bonifacio, a pest all series, scored Justin Ruggiano with a perfectly executed squeeze bunt. But the majority of the damage came off starter Edwin Jackson in the third inning.
Nationals starters had begun the second half by allowing two runs in 18 innings, and Jackson added two scoreless innings to start. But the Marlins rallied. Carlos Lee golfed a slider at his shoes into center field for a two-RBI single, tying the score at 2. Jackson could not have done much more with the pitch, which nearly scraped the dirt. The Marlins would take the lead on a pitch he surely regretted.
With Lee still on first, Jackson fed Hanley Ramirez a 94-mph fastball down the chute. He may as well have put the ball on a tee. Ramirez unleashed a wicked hack and sent the ball clattering off the garish home run sculpture beyond the left-center field fence. Ramirez stood at the plate and posed in his follow-through, admiring his work as if he had just discovered nuclear fusion.
The Nationals had lost the lead and trailed, 4-2. Johnson felt the long layoff affected Jackson — because of the all-star break, Jackson hadn’t pitched in 12 days. Jackson has largely been excellent this season, but when he has faltered, one big inning has been the culprit — 17 of his 46 earned runs this year have come over four innings.
“The game of baseball is damage control,” Jackson said. “Whether one inning is one run, two runs or three runs, it’s just staying out of the big inning. It’s a matter of making pitches when you have to.”
The Nationals had plenty of chances to come back, and just never could. The Nationals hit into four double plays in the first six innings, the costliest coming in the sixth. Zimmerman started the inning by scalding a double to right, putting him a triple away from the cycle. After LaRoche struck out, Morse grounded a single up the middle, scoring Zimmerman to slice the Nationals’ deficit to 4-3.
Espinosa continued to find his left-handed swing, smoking a double just over the leap of left fielder Logan Morrison, which put him only a home run away from the cycle. When Roger Bernadina followed with a walk, the Nationals had the bases loaded and one out.
Jesus Flores drilled a hard grounder at shortstop Jose Reyes, who started a routine 6-4-3 double play. The Nationals’ threat died. As he crossed first base, Flores held his head in his hands. He had dropped to 3 for his last 24.
“I’m trying to look for a good pitch to hit and drive those runs in,” Flores said. “Unfortunately, I hit it back to someone.”
That was the story of the Nationals’ night, a game they’ll have to forget before the most important week of their season to date. They’ll have to hope for better luck next time.