The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nationals can’t connect the dots in loss to bottom-feeding Marlins

Anthony Rendon strikes out in the first inning. He would double in the sixth, extending his career-best hitting streak to 17 games. (Lynne Sladky/Associate Press)

MIAMI — One pitch sailed high above the plate and was caught by a leaping Kurt Suzuki. The next hit Curtis Granderson square in the back. Both brought in sixth-inning runs and, when paired with the Washington Nationals’ inability to hit when they needed to, were the deciding factors of their 3-2 loss to the Miami Marlins on Friday night.

Aníbal Sánchez had a strong start fizzle into that erratic ball four that forced in a run and broke a tie in the decisive sixth. Matt Grace hit Granderson with a sinker that stretched the Marlins’ lead into one their bullpen could protect. The result, in the teams’ first meeting of the season, was sour for a Nationals team that’s been unable to connect the dots in 18 games.

They failed to move runners in critical situations. Their Nos. 7, 8 and 9 hitters — a combination of Wilmer Difo, the pitcher, Matt Adams and Victor Robles — struck out eight times. The bullpen was mostly fine. The offense mostly wasn’t. And Washington has a 9-9 record to show for it.

“We got to put the ball in play and move the runner,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said after the loss, lamenting a recurring problem. “It sounds simple, and yet they just have to do it.”

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The Nationals, if all goes right, should spend the entire season in a four-team race for the National League East. They, the Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves and New York Mets spent the winter building rosters to contend in arguably the league’s deepest division. The Marlins, however, stayed far out of it. They traded J.T. Realmuto, a premier young catcher, to Philadelphia for a group of prospects. They grew their system with an eye on the future instead of the present.

At 5-15, they own the worst record in baseball, and that only underscores the importance of beating them as much as possible.

“Every game matters, regardless of who you play” Martinez said before the series started, pushing back on these games being any more critical given how competitive the rest of the division is. And he isn’t wrong. A victory over the Marlins doesn’t count any more than one over the Phillies or Mets or Braves. A final record doesn’t consider the strength of any win or the sorrow of any loss.

But a loss to the Marlins stings a little more, especially when the Phillies, Mets and Braves were a combined 7-2 against them heading into Friday. Miami even fired Mike Pagliarulo, its hitting coach, after the game.

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Yet the Nationals couldn’t turn a strong start into much else. Their first of 19 matchups with Miami began with a bunt single from Adam Eaton before Juan Soto drove him in for a first-inning lead . It ended with missed opportunities and a thud.

“When you have the opportunity to put teams away, you got to try to put them away,” Martinez said. “You can’t let them linger because you never know what’s going to happen in this game.”

Sánchez had shaky command at the start and gave up back-to-back hard singles in the second. The Marlins then scored on a chopper from Isaac Galloway to third. Caleb Smith, their starter, found a rhythm and Sánchez only matched him until his start unraveled in the sixth.

But before it did, in the top of the inning, Smith stranded Anthony Rendon on third after a double extended Rendon’s career-best hitting streak to 17 games. That was the second time the Nationals couldn’t plate a runner in scoring position with less than two outs. Now they paid for it.

“Obviously runners in scoring in position has kind of been a weakness of ours, really less than two outs runner on base has kind of been the biggest thing,” said Nationals second baseman Brian Dozier, whose home run in the seventh accounted for the Nationals’ other run. “But at the same time, you got to bear down.”

The Marlins’ rally started with a one-out double from Miguel Rojas. Then Galloway reached on an infield single. Then Rosell Herrera reached on a bunt. Then Sanchez missed badly for ball four and Rojas scored. Then Matt Grace relieved him, hit Granderson with his first pitch to bring in another run, and enough damage was done.

For most of the night, it was so quiet that individual shouts echoed through the enclosed Marlins Park. The announced crowd of 8,199 included only a handful of fans dotting the second and third decks. The loudest cheer may have been for a young girl who reached each high note of the national anthem.

That can create the illusion that stakes are lower, but they weren’t. The loss is like any other in the standings, which now reflect the Nationals as a .500 team in a race that could be decided by nights like this.

“Division games are important, but at the same time they are still win and loss column wherever you play,” Dozier said. “It’s a good thing to kind of see that there are no let-ups in the league. You can always feel like you are expected to win a game, but this is the big leagues for a reason.”