MIAMI — In this past turn through the Washington Nationals’ starting rotation, the pitching has been nothing short of outstanding. Following Stephen Strasburg’s one-run, seven-inning outing Tuesday night, Nationals starters have allowed just five runs over 35 innings.
But after a 3-0 loss to the Miami Marlins, the Nationals — without a hobbling Jayson Werth (ankle) and Ryan Zimmerman (hamstring) in the starting lineup — had only a 2-3 record to show for their starters’ strong efforts.
Strasburg made two mistakes in the sixth inning that cost him the lone run he allowed, yet was otherwise outstanding in a stadium that has bedeviled him. But the offense stranded 11 runners and struggling Jerry Blevins helped turn a one-run deficit late into a three-run hole.
The loss dropped the Nationals into a virtual tie with the Atlanta Braves atop the National League East. (The Braves played the Los Angeles Dodgers late Tuesday night on the West Coast.) The Marlins, winners of six straight, moved to .500 and five games out of first place.
The Nationals have scored only 14 runs in this five-game stretch, and the bullpen has allowed nine runs, capped by Blevins’s two-run eighth inning Tuesday.
“It’s a question of things not going the right way right now,” Manager Matt Williams said.
Strasburg entered Tuesday’s game with a 4.17 ERA in 16 career starts against the Marlins, his worst mark against any division opponent. Inside cavernous Marlins Park, Strasburg’s performances had been worse. He had an 8.61 ERA over five starts in the three-year old stadium.
Strasburg made a big dent in those numbers with seven stout innings. He worked around a one-out double in the first inning, a ball that was perhaps lost in the lights by Bryce Harper. His fastball hit as high as 98 mph. He commanded his secondary pitches, relying on his curveball. He walked the leadoff batter in the third and fourth innings, but escaped both situations.
Strasburg and Marlins all-star Henderson Alvarez matched each other for the first five innings before Strasburg’s fateful sixth. In a scoreless game, his two mistakes were magnified.
Strasburg left an 0-2 fastball up for Jordany Valdespin, who smacked it into center field for a leadoff single. Up came Giancarlo Stanton, one of baseball’s best power hitters and a player who entered the game with a career 1.091 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against the Nationals.
Strasburg fell behind 2-0. He then challenged Stanton up and in with a 96-mph fastball that Stanton fouled back. Strasburg came back to the same spot with a curveball, and Stanton hammered it to left field for a double. As Valdespin scored, Stanton tried for third base and was thrown out. The damage was already done.
“For some reason we make mistakes to [Stanton],” Strasburg said. “I wasn’t trying to hang that curveball. I did. He hit it down the line. He’s just a good mistake hitter. Just got to do a better job of executing pitches.”
The Nationals’ best chance came in the second inning, when they loaded the bases against Alvarez with no outs after Wilson Ramos drew a leadoff walk, Harper singled and Ian Desmond walked. A trainer and Marlins Manager Mike Redmond came out to check on Alvarez, who remained in the game.
Normally, Desmond and Ramos would be the team’s No. 7 and 8 hitters. On Tuesday, it was .215-hitting Danny Espinosa and .180-hitting Nate McLouth. Espinosa struck out swinging. McLouth scorched the ball toward third base, but Casey McGehee made a slick diving catch to snare the ball and nearly double off Ramos at third base. Strasburg then grounded out to second base to end the inning.
Desmond refused to blame the absence of Werth and Zimmerman for the Nationals’ struggles.
“Those guys are really good, and this is no discredit to them, but that guy on the mound is pretty good, too,” Desmond said. “I believe, and I think we all believe, that the guys that we have, whoever, one-through-nine every day, gives us a really good chance to win. We have a really deep roster. That guy just pitched a really good game [Tuesday].”
In the sixth inning, the Nationals got a leadoff double by Anthony Rendon and later stranded him at third base. The Nationals managed to drag four walks and three hits out of Alvarez but no runs over seven innings.
The Nationals would again get a chance to convert base runners into runs, and the critical at-bat fell to Harper. In the eighth inning against right-handed reliever Bryan Morris, Rendon drew a one-out walk and Ramos walked with two outs. The Marlins brought in left-handed reliever Mike Dunn to face Harper. Dunn fired a first-pitch slider to Harper, and he popped out to shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria.
“He hung a breaking ball, and I just got under it a little bit,” Harper said. “If I catch it out front a little bit, it might be a different story.”
A 1-0 game turned into a 3-0 deficit when Blevins entered in the eighth inning and allowed a single and an RBI double. After Aaron Barrett allowed an RBI single to Stanton, Blevins’s ERA rose to 5.11 and the Marlins had a comfortable cushion.
Werth, who sprained his right ankle on Monday, made a pinch-hitting appearance in the ninth as the Nationals mounted a late rally. But with two on and one out, Werth flied out to right. Denard Span followed with a single to load the bases, but Rendon struck out swinging to end it.