For more than three hours on a blustery, 58-degree, late April night, a crowd of 13,356 sat at Nationals Park and waited for the home ballclub to do something, anything, that might be worthy of a robust reaction.
It didn’t happen while Erick Fedde was on the mound for 4 2/3 laborious innings. It didn’t happen while any of the first four Nationals relievers followed out of the bullpen. And it sure didn’t happen with any Nats at the plate during the first seven innings of lackluster baseball at the park.
And then, finally, a glimmer of a spark. A two-out rally in the bottom of the eighth that featured zero base hits but nonetheless somehow pushed one run across the plate, and brought Yadiel Hernandez to the plate with the bases loaded and a chance to deliver the clutch the crowd so desperately wanted.
And when Hernandez blasted Anthony Bender’s slider deep to left-center, everyone in the park reacted as if he had surely just delivered the biggest clutch hit this sport permits. Alas, it was too much to ask for on this night. The ball died in the cold air, caught by center fielder Jesús Sánchez at the warning track and the Nationals were left to wonder what might have been at the end of a 2-1 loss to the Marlins.
"Yadi couldn't do more than what he did," manager Davey Martinez said of Hernandez's 361-foot flyout, which according to Statcast had an expected batting average of .950. "He smoked that ball (at) 107 mph. Sometime soon, those balls will be home runs."
Unable to mount any sustained offense against Miami starter Pablo López or his teammates, the Nats suffered their seventh straight loss.
Some of the credit, to be sure, goes to López, who with six scoreless innings lowered his season ERA to a miniscule 0.39. But he’s not the first opponent to hold the Nationals in check. They’ve scored a grand total of 14 runs during this seven-game losing streak, with little evidence a breakthrough is imminent.
"We have to get it done. That's the bottom line," said designated hitter Nelson Cruz, now batting .167 after an 0-for-3 game. "We have to get the job done, you know? Everybody, including myself."
Scoring opportunities, if you want to call them that, were scarce tonight. The Nats got a two-out walk from Josh Bell in the first, a couple of singles from Maikel Franco and César Hernández (the first of which was wiped out via double play) in the third, a two-out double from Yadiel Hernandez in the fourth and a two-out walk from Keibert Ruiz in the seventh.
Even the rally that finally produced a run in the eighth was like pulling teeth. With two outs and nobody on, the Marlins gifted their opponents two baserunners with back-to-back errors, the second of which came when Juan Soto’s routine popup somehow found grass between the mound and second base. Left-hander Tanner Scott then issued back-to-back walks to Bell and Cruz, the latter of which forced home a run and brought Hernandez to the plate with a chance to cap things off in dramatic fashion.
"In that situation, you throw everything out the window and compete," Cruz said. "That should be the mentality."
Hernandez’s well-struck drive to left-center, though, came up short, much to the surprise of teammates, who like most in the ballpark assumed it would clear the fence for a grand slam.
"It's a homer, dude," Cruz said. "That's been a homer for a hundred years. Something's off right there, I don't know what it is. We can only speculate, but it was weird."
Hitters around the league have been speculating about changes to the ball being used this season, with home runs and offense in general down from 2021.
Asked why he thinks that is, Cruz not-so-subtly responded: "I don't know. You should ask MLB."
Fedde historically has enjoyed more success against the Marlins than any other opponent. He entered 4-0 with a 1.43 ERA in seven career head-to-head starts, so he had every reason to take the mound with confidence tonight.
The ensuing results were positive, but this was far from an ideal performance from Fedde, who labored throughout despite keeping the damage to a minimum. He needed a whopping 91 pitches to complete 4 2/3 innings, even though he allowed only two runs on three hits.
The Marlins made life difficult on Fedde by fouling off 18 of those 91 pitches, turning what should have been quick at-bats into lengthy ones. Many of them still ended in outs, including five strikeouts, but the sheer volume of it all took its toll on the right-hander.
"Honestly, this is the best I've felt since probably my first start, just the way my body felt," he said. "To me, that's a big win and something to build off of. But it sucks I had a 1-2-3 inning where I threw 24 pitches. The foul balls have been killing me lately. I would've loved to go six or more, but unfortunately I didn't get there."
The only impactful hit Fedde surrendered was Jesús Aguilar’s third-inning homer, which came on a high 3-1 sinker. He would eventually be victimized not by the hit, but by the walk, issued not only by himself but by the reliever who replaced him in the fifth.
That rally began with Jacob Stallings’ two-out bloop single to right, in which Soto made an ill-advised attempt to throw the Miami catcher out at first and wound up airmailing it into the camera well, giving Stallings a free base. And when Fedde promptly walked the next batter he faced, he was pulled from the game in favor of Andres Machado.
Not that Machado fared any better. He issued back-to-back walks to the .204-hitting Aguilar and the .190-hitting Jorge Soler, forcing in the run that left a Nationals club that hasn't been able to get out of its own way lately in a 2-0 hole.
"That's one where you just say a guy got a base hit, let's try to get the next hitter out," Martinez said of Soto's error. "But when we're trying to create things and make things happen, we try and do things out of the ordinary. And you're going to see those mistakes."