Nationals turn sloppy in homestand-ending loss to Marlins

There was a routine popup lost in the sun, letting two runs stroll across the plate. There was a clutch, two-run single by the opposing pitcher after the guy in front of him had been intentionally walked. And there were strikeouts, 15 of them in total, 10 of them with runners on base.

Suffice it to say, the Nationals didn't do many things right this afternoon. And suffice it to say, all of that resulted in a 5-1 loss to the Marlins that never felt particularly close, given the manner in which Jose Fernandez was dealing for Miami.

At the end of a long and eventful homestand that included a walk-off homer, an ejection and suspension of the league MVP, a $175 million contract extension for a homegrown star, a 20-strikeout game by the staff ace, a pick-up of the two-year option on the general manager's contract and a doubleheader played in part in a downpour, the Nationals slogged their way through back-to-back losses to the Marlins.

With a 7-1 defeat in the nightcap of Saturday's twinbill and then this 5-1 loss today, what was shaping up to be a highly successful homestand turned into a 4-3 week with enough twists and turns to fill out a month's worth of baseball.

The Nationals knew they were facing a stiff challenge today against Fernandez, who entered the game 4-0 with a 1.05 ERA in seven career starts against them. Which is why every mistake they made only compounded the task.

It began in the top of the third, when Stephen Drew lost Martin Prado's popup in the sun, the ball ultimately bouncing off the edge of his glove and falling to the ground as two runs crossed the plate.

"I tried to move to the left with my glove, and then the right; I just kept seeing the sun," Drew said. "The only time I really saw it was behind my shoulder, and that's when I tried to go grab it real quick and kind of too late. Just unfortunate."

That put the Marlins up 2-0. The deficit only felt larger.

"It's tough when you give Fernandez that kind of lead," manager Dusty Baker said, "because he doesn't need much help."

The Nationals kept helping him out. And then Fernandez helped himself in a huge spot in the sixth.

With two on and two out in what was now a 3-1 game, Baker elected to intentionally walk .205-hitting shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria to load the bases for Fernandez, a good-hitting pitcher.

"We knew Fernandez was a good hitter, but you've got to be a tremendous hitter to pitch to Hechavarria," Baker said. "Because we didn't walk Hechavarria (in Miami last month) a couple times, and it cost us. This guy is a pretty good clutch hitter, even when he's not hitting well for average."

The strategy was sound, but the execution was not. Right-hander Joe Ross left a sinker up in the zone, and Fernandez roped it to center field for a two-run single that effectively put the game out of reach.

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"I wanted to try and go after Hechavarria, but it was probably smarter to put him on and face the pitcher," Ross said. "Kind of backfired a little bit. It's definitely the right play. I'm glad he let me try and get out of there. But it just didn't really go my way."

As electric as Fernandez is, and as good as his stuff was on this day, the Nationals lineup played right into his hands. He struck out 11 batters over seven innings, getting ahead in the count and then finishing them off with breaking balls well off the plate.

"When he throws that slider for a strike, it's tough," said Ryan Zimmerman, who struck out twice. "Then with two strikes he can sort of expand the zone. He's got really good stuff."

All told, the Nationals struck out 15 times in the game, scoring their lone run when Miami outfielders Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna collided on Zimmerman's drive to deep right-center, handing him a scary-looking, inside-the-park home run.

It was a disappointing way to wrap up an eventful homestand, one that now feeds into the first of six showdowns between the Nationals and Mets over the rest of the season.

"We knew this was going to be a tough time in the schedule," Baker said. "We knew that from the beginning. Right now, we're not playing great. We're one game under .500 in May, we're 7-8. My goal is always to try to win 15 games in a month, and we've still got action on that. We've just got to play better, we've got to execute better. Whether it's bunting or picking up the runners or advancing runners from second with nobody out, these are all the little things that constitute going into winning."

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