Offensive funk masks Nats strong defense, pitching in 4-1 loss

Diversions aplenty surrounded the Nationals 4-1 loss to the Florida Marlins on Saturday afternoon, tantalizing reminders of what happens when strong starts and flashy defense aren’t supported offensively.

Jason Marquis did his part, tossing six innings and striking out eight in what he said was his best outing since surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow. The Nationals showed some sterling defense, getting a nice fielding play from rookie second baseman Danny Espinosa that saved two runs and turning an unconventional double play to extract Marquis from a jam.

There was even some comic relief from reliever Collin Balester, who, in the space of six pitches to a single batter in the eighth inning sailed a pitch to the backstop, fall flat on his backside trying to execute a pickoff at second base and then struck out Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez.

But the sobering truth was that the Nationals lost for the fourth straight game, unable to figure out Anibal Sanchez, who ran his career record against Washington to 5-0 with 7 2/3 innings of four-hit, one-run ball. The Nats mustered only five hits on the afternoon, waiting until the eighth inning to score a run.

Jim Riggleman meets with the media after the Nats’ 4-1 loss to the Marlins

“Our pitchers are doing a good job, keeping us in the games, giving us an opportunity to win the game. We just haven’t done it the last couple of games,” Espinosa said.

In their last 18 innings against Florida, the Nationals have scored two runs on 11 hits and squandered two effective outings by starting pitchers. This time, they were checked by Sanchez (12-9), who walked none and fanned four. Sanchez has won two of his four starts against Washington this year. Since scoring 30 runs from Sept. 4-6, Washington has scored five times during its losing streak.

“I don’t know how many times he’s pitched against us, but I really don’t feel like we’ve gotten (Sanchez) yet. ... We’re going to have to figure something out on him,” Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said.

Marquis (2-8) continued to show he’s recovered from May surgery, allowing two runs on five hits over six innings. He walked one and the eight strikeouts matched his total from his previous five starts combined.

“Today was probably the best I’ve felt since the surgery. I had good bite on my slider today. The bite on my sinker was down in the zone,” explained Marquis. “I keep getting ahead of hitters early - try to get strike one as often as possible - and I think that’s when the results are better. ... It was the first time all year that I really had ... the north/south action I want on my slider.”

Riggleman will take outs however he can get them, but prefers groundballs off Marquis’ sinker than the uncharacteristic strikeouts.

“I really like to see the groundballs (because) that results in quick innings,” Riggleman said. “I’m not sure, but a lot of those strikeouts were just sinkers that had that much depth to them. Usually the strikeout’s going to be on a breaking pitch that’s a chase-type pitch. But I think a few of those strikeouts were just sinkers that had enough depth that the hitter is swinging at what he thinks is a 90 mph fastball but the bottom drops out. Usually those are hit, but these were sinking enough that they were totally missed.”

For four innings, an interesting pitcher’s duel was shaping up. Marquis had allowed only one baserunner - Logan Morrison reached with one out in the first on the first of first baseman Adam Dunn’s two errors - and Sanchez retired the first 12 Nationals hitters he faced in order.

Marquis loaded the bases with none out in the fifth on singles by Chad Tracy and Mike Stanton and a walk to Cameron Maybin, then proceeded to get within one strike of getting out of the jam. Brad Davis fanned looking, Marquis got Sanchez swinging and Emilio Bonifacio worked the count to 3-2 before poking a sinker off the end of his bat and into center field for a two-run single.

Florida could have added to its lead when Bonifacio, who wasn’t being held at first, swiped second. Morrison ripped a ball up the middle, but Espinosa ranged to his right to glove it on the outfield grass and fired to first to end the threat.

Marquis was gone after the sixth, but not before an unconventional 5-3-6 double play got him out of trouble. Ramirez had led off with a single to left and Dan Uggla grounded a ball that third baseman Ryan Zimmerman charged and tried to short-hop. The ball squirted out of Zimmerman’s glove and he barehanded it and fired to first to get Uggla. Ramirez, who was running on the play, kept motoring around second, but shortstop Ian Desmond beat him to third, taking Dunn’s throw from first and completing the weird twin-killing.

If the double play was weird, Balester’s ungraceful footwork on the eighth-inning pickoff throw could only be classified as wacky if embarrassing. Balester relieved Craig Stammen, who had allowed Bonifacio’s double and a run-scoring single to center by Morrison. After fanning Ramirez swinging, Balester walked Uggla and then advanced him to second with a wild pitch.

With Tracy batting, Balester looked for Desmond to sneak behind Uggla for a pickoff throw. When Balester saw Espinosa moving in from second as he tried to spin and throw, his legs got tangled and he would up on the seat of his pants while laughter swelled from the crowd of 17,941.

“It’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me. ... I was all flustered, just started moving limbs and falling all over the place. I don’t think I stepped off. I looked at the replay and it looked like moving parts. I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said.”

A ninth-inning run by the Marlins - Maybin tripled and scored on Dunn’s error - negated Wilson Ramos’ RBI double in the Washington eighth. Clay Hensley got the final three outs in the ninth, working around a leadoff walk to Espinosa and Zimmerman’s one-out single.