MIAMI – Nelson Cruz has been in big spots throughout his 18-year career. And he’s been in much bigger games than the Nationals’ 38th game of the season against a division opponent.
But after missing Monday’s series opener with an illness, Cruz found himself back in the lineup Tuesday night, and wouldn’t you know it, the game put him in one of the biggest spots of the night.
What happened didn’t ultimately lead to the Nationals’ 5-1 loss in front of 8,097 at loanDepot Park, which also included a close to seven-minute delay due to a false fire alarm in the fifth inning. But it certainly was their biggest opportunity to get ahead of the Marlins late and perhaps win their first game against their National League East rival.
With the Nats down 1-0 and with one out in the sixth, Victor Robles singled to center field to get a speedy runner on base. But he was promptly picked off by Marlins lefty reliever Steven Okert, this coming after Robles stole his first base in his first attempt of the season last night.
But Cesár Hernández followed with an infield single, and Juan Soto and Josh Bell reached on back-to-back walks against the erratic Okert.
That brought up Cruz with the bases loaded, two outs and a one-run deficit. He was able to foul off three pitches from Okert and run the count full. But Cruz eventually struck out on an 80.1 mph slider right over the plate, his third of the night, leaving three potential runs on base.
“This guy likes to throw the slider," Cruz said of Okert's put-away pitch. "He threw a pretty good one at 3-2 ... that's the pitch he throws the most. In that situation, you definitely gotta trust the pitch that he throws the most and that was the slider ... I was behind right away (0-2). And I was able to take some pitches and get to 3-2. Like I said, the last pitch was a good one.”
Again, that at-bat wasn’t what doomed the Nats. If Robles doesn't get picked off at first base, does that inning go differently? Who knows?
It was, however, another bad result to point to with this struggling Nationals offense, which has now been outscored 35-7 and has failed to score more than two runs in any of their six previous losses.
The Nationals struck out 10 times tonight, three by Cruz alone, and left eight runners on base.
Then there was another ugly defensive sequence by the Nationals that put this game out of reach.
After Miguel Rojas doubled to left to lead off the bottom of the seventh, he moved over to third on Erik González’s sacrifice bunt down the first base line. But Erasmo Ramírez wasn’t able to field it cleanly and allowed González to reach first on an error. With Jazz Chisholm Jr. batting, Ramírez threw an errant pickoff attempt to first, allowing Rojas to score from third. Then Bell's throw across the diamond got past Maikel Franco, allowing González to eventually score from first, leaving it 4-0 with three errors in the seventh.
“Yeah, one, Erasmo's cleat got stuck, his front leg," manager Davey Martinez said. "That should have been a balk. I thought they were gonna call a balk and then the play is done. But he tried to throw the ball because he knew there was a guy on third base. Threw the ball away and then Josh Bell turned and fired the ball to where he thought (Alcides) Escobar was the cut, and he just missed everybody. In those situations, we're trying too hard, trying to create something that's not there. All he had to do is probably just take a peek, look where everybody's at and then fireball straight at third base.”
On the mound, Joan Adon actually turned in a solid outing over 4 ⅔ innings. He relied heavily on his fastball again, touching 98 mph, and threw strikes, a point of emphasis from Martinez and pitching coach Jim Hickey during his between-starts bullpen session.
“Adon was better, much better," said Martinez. "His pitch count got up there a little bit, but 65 percent strikes, I think his velo was the highest that he's thrown all year. But his tempo, the way he controlled his body, his mechanics, was way, way better. So I told him: Hey, let's build off of that and get you in the next five days.”
“I just worked on my direction and I think that helped me a lot to be more consistent in the zone,” Adon said, via team interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I think the direction helped me the most. It's just the fact that I was straighter to home plate, my arm felt freer and just more direct.”
Adon did give up a leadoff home run to Rojas in the fifth off a high fastball. He finished allowing five hits, the one run on the homer and no walk while striking out two on 85 pitches, 54 strikes. That’s a much better strike-to-ball ratio than some of his previous starts.
“I feel like I was nice and relaxed and comfortable out there," Adon said. "Didn't seem like I was doing a whole lot and it was coming out good.”
He also hit Bryan De La Cruz in the right forearm, forcing him from the game with a contusion.
Also out of the bullpen, Steve Cishek gave up a home run to Jesús Sánchez (who entered the game for De La Cruz) in the sixth and Paolo Espino gave up a run on three hits in the ninth.
The Nationals fall to 12-26 as losers of three straight, five straight against the Fish and seven of their last nine overall.
If it hasn’t happened already, it’s only a matter of time before the offensive struggles and defensive miscues become a real point of frustration for this team.
“We gotta get our big boys to drive in some runs," Davey Martinez said. "We had an opportunity again today. We couldn't get it done. So when those guys hit, we're going to be in great shape. We got to get those guys to drive in runs for us.”