As backbreaking as the close losses have been, as disheartening as the late-game collapses were, they gave the Washington Nationals hope. They suggested to them, to those eyes eager to see reason to believe, that if not for a pitch here or there everything might be different. Nothing about Sunday’s 12-1 loss to the Miami Marlins suggested this team is close. Nothing about a game like that, against a last-place team, allows for the illusion that they are on the verge.
Because for a team supposedly scratching and clawing for dear life, the Nationals largely looked like a group of players waiting for someone to toss them a rope they had not earned. Gio Gonzalez struggled again. Their defense lapsed. They surrendered 17 hits. They accumulated two.
“It was an ugly game, and everybody saw it,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “Gio couldn’t keep us in the game, and it got ugly.”
Baseball is difficult, and nothing about winning games should be considered a given, dismissed as easy or oversimplified. But the stark fact of this season is that 17 teams in baseball have found winning easier than the Nationals (62-63) — and that only five teams in the National League have lost more. They are seven games back in the NL East, and they are under .500 deep into August.
The Nationals could use a few more Adam Eatons, a few more guys with so much grit they could seem abrasive, a few more guys who pump the brakes so infrequently that they no longer have them at all. Those are the guys who fend off defeat. In the first inning Sunday, with the tone of the flighty Gonzalez’s day yet to be determined, Eaton climbed the right field wall and plucked a foul pop out of the stands to end a scoreless inning.
Eaton also drove in the Nationals’ only run with an RBI double in the third. The Marlins threw him out trying to transform that hit into a triple. Aggressive and fiery do not always foretell perfection, but they always reveal effort.
This team also could use a few more Juan Sotos. He was the second Nationals player to push Marlins starter Jose Ureña — an enigmatic young right-hander best known for his recent revenge plunking of Atlanta Braves rookie Ronald Acuña Jr. — into a three-ball count.
Against a hard-throwing rookie with command trouble, a veteran lineup should be pushing counts deep like that over and over. A 19-year-old did it best, and he became the Nationals’ first base runner of the day when he walked in the second. He never scored. Soto earned the Nationals’ only two walks, and only two others reached base as Ureña lasted all nine innings.
The Marlins scored first in a typically maddening Gonzalez inning in the third. He walked two men and got two outs. Then he allowed a blooper to short center, a play Michael A. Taylor probably makes standing up but one Bryce Harper could not. Instead of diving, Harper deked as if he could catch the ball, a smart play in some situations but an ineffectual one with two outs when runners are moving anyway. Harper has been an adequate defender in center field but simply doesn’t have the speed of a true center fielder.
This team can tout its defensive prowess via statistics, such as the fact that it had made the fewest errors in baseball entering Sunday. But those statistics do not reflect its reality, which consists of plays such as the blooper or the strange route Harper took to Austin Dean’s line drive a batter later. A better route might have given Harper a chance. Instead the ball banged off the wall for a double that scored two runs and left the Nationals trailing 3-0.
Those undocumented errors that don’t show up in the scorebook change games. The Nationals have experienced many such plays this season. And they have suffered for them.
“I think just got to go out there and play ball, hopefully make those plays,” Harper said. “Had a ball in center that I could possibly could’ve made. I don’t know. Just got to grind.”
In the quest to find the one reason this season has been such a disappointment, defense rarely gets much credit. It deserves some. Then again, two of the runs that scored that inning were on base because Gonzalez walked them there.
Gonzalez allowed eight runs on 10 hits and walked four. He lasted just 4⅔ innings. He has made 14 starts since the beginning of June. He has lasted fewer than five innings in six of them. He became the second pitcher this season to allow eight runs to the Marlins. Jeremy Hellickson was the other.
“As a pitcher you pride yourself on competing and trying to go out there and go the distance,” Gonzalez said. “It’s just one of those things. If I had the answer to it, we wouldn’t be talking about it.”
By the seventh, the Marlins led 11-1. The last 15 Nationals went down in order as Ureña finished his first complete game.
“Those close games can take the wind out of your sails a little bit. It’s tough,” Eaton said. “Today we just went out there and we really didn’t have it.”
The Marlins had not won a road game since July 21. They took two out of three from the Nationals, who are arguing they are still alive on the outskirts of a pennant race but are not providing much proof of life.