MIAMI — The Washington Nationals arrived here at 3 a.m. Monday morning, fresh from their dusting of the Atlanta Braves, ready for the Miami Marlins and dead tired. Their sweep in Atlanta had not made the rapid turnaround any less demanding. “It’s not easier whenever,” Manager Davey Johnson said beforehand. “But we’ll be all right. These guys are young and strong and can’t wait to get back on the field.”
About 14 hours after they finished their triumphant series in Atlanta, the Nationals opened their latest National League East showdown with a 5-3 loss in their first game at the architectural fever dream that is Marlins Park. Jordan Zimmermann slammed his first career home run, but he also allowed two, including the two-run blast by Giancarlo Stanton that served as the fulcrum to Miami’s three-run sixth inning.
The Nationals showed little signs of wear, but the Marlins snapped Washington’s three-game winning streak and shrank its lead over the Marlins and Mets to 21 / 2 games. Even in defeat, the Nationals remained 11-4 against NL East opponents and made an impression on the Marlins.
“I’ll tell you what, I found out why they’re in first place,” veteran Marlins right-hander Carlos Zambrano said. “Those kids can hit and they have good pitching. They’re good. You have to give them credit. They hit some good pitches that I made.”
The Nationals had chances to extend their winning streak to four games. Ryan Zimmerman grounded into a critical double play to squelch the Nationals’ final rally. Bryce Harper nearly missed a game-breaking hit. But Zimmermann diagnosed the difference by saying: “Two pitches.”
The Nationals carried a 3-1 lead into the sixth inning, Zimmermann having retired six straight batters. Logan Morrison led off the fourth with a homer, but Zimmermann could live with that, a good, inside pitch that Morrison hooked into the seats.
The sixth, though, ate at Zimmermann. He led off by jumping ahead of Hanley Ramirez, 1-2, but Ramirez laced a single to left field. “He didn’t put him away,” Johnson said. “Those cost him.”
Up came Stanton, perhaps the scariest sight in a batter’s box baseball has to offer, a hulking slugger with 10 homers in May. Zimmermann fell behind Stanton 3-1, the makings of a disaster. He fed Stanton a slider that broke over the heart of the plate, and Stanton did not miss. He obliterated a home run off the back wall in left field, 412 feet from home plate, tying the score.
The Marlins started another rally with Morrison’s double and Bryan Petersen’s single. Zimmermann struck out John Buck, raising the possibility of escaping the inning without any more harm. Chris Coghlan nailed a line drive to intermediate left field, right at Steve Lombardozzi.
Lombardozzi has done everything the Nationals have asked, and more. Before games he is a man of constant motion, pacing to the field or batting cage for extra work. He became an outfielder this spring and has caught everything in his direction. He took over their leadoff spot and produced an on-base percentage near .400.
But Lombardozzi, a second baseman by trade, cannot do anything about the limited strength of his arm. He caught Coghlan’s line drive just as Morrison retreated to third base. He fired home, and Morrison slid in safely as the ball reached catcher Carlos Maldonado on two bounces. The Marlins had taken a 4-3 lead.
The Nationals had a chance to get back in the game. Roger Bernadina walked to lead off the seventh and Lombardozzi followed with a single, his third hit of the day. Marlins Manager Ozzie Guillen summoned left-hander Dan Jennings from the bullpen to try to neutralize Harper.
Harper worked the count to 3-2 and drilled a slider on the outside corner down the left field line. Coghlan chased down the ball and made a sliding catch along the warning track dirt, inches from the sidewall for the first out.
The Marlins had retired Harper, but the Nationals still had hope in the form of Zimmerman. In the fifth inning, he had come to bat with Harper and Lombardozzi on base and blasted a two-run double to left-center field, smoking a slider at his ankles. He is hitting .318 with four doubles and a homer in his past 10 games, finally finding a rhythm in his return from a shoulder sprain.
“I’m starting to have better at-bats,” Zimmerman said. “I’m hitting the ball harder, I’m not just slapping it around.”
Now, Guillen swapped out Jennings for Edward Mujica. He threw Zimmerman a first-pitch sinker, and Zimmerman smoked it — but right to Jose Reyes at shortstop. Reyes started a routine, 6-4-3 double play, killing the rally just as quickly as it had materialized.
“I wish I could do some damage with it,” Zimmerman said. “It’s frustrating when you get a pitch you can hit and you’re ready for it, and you just hit it right at somebody.”
The game had started with another sign that everything is going right for the Nationals. In the third inning, Zimmermann, a career .188 hitter, fell behind 2-2 in the count. Zambrano hung a curve, and Zimmermann golfed a deep drive to left field. Coghlan watched the ball land in the Clevelander bar behind the fence. Zimmermann paused as he rounded second, unsure of where the ball had gone.
“It’s hard to see,” Zimmermann said. “There’s so many bright objects out there.”
The Nationals had restarted their momentum from the night before. “It’s tough to come back after so late last night,” Lombardozzi said. “But I thought we battled and played real well.”