MIAMI - Players milled about in the stone-silent vistors' clubhouse at Sun Life Stadium on Tuesday night, wearing blank expressions far longer than an early April loss would normally warrant. No, this wake was a matter of logistics.
Outside the stadium, the Nationals' team bus had broken down.
"It's a brand-new bus, too," general manager Mike Rizzo said. Then, smiling ruefully, he said sarcastically, "It should be broken down. I don't know if there's pestilence going on here, or what."
After what's happened to the Nationals here, can you rule it out?
Tuesday's 3-2, 10-inning loss to the Florida Marlins was the 40th time the Nationals have lost to their division rivals since the start of the 2008 season. And this loss felt like so many of the other ones: a hopeful start, missed opportunities that felt like the depletion of a finite resource and an ending so stupefying, it was easier to take with laughter than scowls.
The Nationals took a 2-1 lead on Ryan Zimmerman's first homer since last Aug. 30. They held that lead until the seventh inning, when Jason Marquis continued his heretofore impressive start and gave up a leadoff double to Donnie Murphy that eventually led to the tying run. They missed a chance to retake the lead in the eighth, when Jayson Werth's drive to left missed being a homer by a few feet and banged off the wall. Third base coach Bo Porter waved Jerry Hairston around third, only to put up a stop sign too late for Hairston to get back to third. He was tagged out, ending the inning with Zimmerman on deck.
"They probably could have elected to walk Zim," Hairston said. "You never know. They made a pic-perfect relay. We just tried to hold up in time, but obviously the shortstop (Hanley Ramirez) came in pretty good to back up. Usually, if he's out there, I can hustle and beat the third baseman back, but it just didn't happen."
And in the 10th, it was second baseman Danny Espinosa camped under a harmless pop-up - until Werth called him off at the last second, only to bobble the catch off his glove. Then came a wild pitch from Drew Storen, a walk, a single, a five-man infield that almost got the Nationals out of the inning and a misplaced sinker from Sean Burnett that, of course, led to Murphy getting the game-winning hit and, of course, brought in the run from Werth's error.
"I feel bad for those kids," Werth said. "They pitched great tonight. Drew pitched great. It was unfortunate. It was totally my fault."
Werth's apology was one of several in a contrite clubhouse; Porter said the play at third was "a bad read on my part," and Burnett - who nearly bailed the Nationals out of a bases-loaded jam - said his sinker to Murphy was "the worst pitch I threw all inning."
But the root of the problem was all of the runners the Nationals left standing on bases; they stranded 12, going just 1-for-8 with men in scoring position and leaving runners on third three times. Facing Marlins starter Anibal Sanchez, who had a 5-0 record and 2.28 ERA against the Nationals before tonight, they did just enough to put themselves in the game, but not enough to eliminate the possibility of a stinging loss.
"We've got a fairly veteran group there," manager Jim Riggleman said. "I'm not going to worry about them. You put them out there and let them play, and I like the way they're playing. I'm really excited about a lot of things that happened in that ballgame tonight. We had a lot of baserunners out there. If we keep putting them out there, we're going to get them in."
Eventually, that might turn out to be true. But at the moment, here are the facts: The four starting pitchers to throw for the Nationals this year have a combined ERA of 2.71. Zimmerman has a 1.406 OPS, and Burnett hasn't had a run charged to his name in the calendar year 2011.
And the Nationals are 1-3, the most recent addition to their record being the kind of loss they've become all too familiar with in Florida.
"In the clubhouse, the group of guys we have is very conducive to winning," Werth said. "I think we have the group of guys we need to mesh good together and play good together. It's a matter of going out there and getting it done."