MIAMI - The Marlins were able to score two runs in the sixth to break open a tight pitcher’s duel, and that was enough in the end, as the Nationals fell 3-2 in the road trip opener at Marlins Park.
It was the last-place Marlins’ first win in five games, and only their fifth in 20 games. Left-hander Caleb Smith was a little bit better than Nats right-hander Aníbal Sánchez, but it was close. Smith tossed six innings, allowing one run on five hits with no walks and eight strikeouts.
Brian Dozier connected on a late solo homer, his second of the season, to cut the deficit to 3-2 in the seventh, but went 0-for-2 with a double play groundout against the Marlins southpaw winning pitcher Smith (2-0).
“Smith threw the ball good,” Dozier said. “He’s been throwing the ball good all year. He filled up the zone. He made pitches when he needed to. Got some runners on base, just couldn’t execute when we needed to. It came down to that one inning. They won the game in that one inning. But at that the same time I thought we played pretty good, but offensively we left some guys on base.”
And with Smith so on, the Nationals had few chances to hit paydirt. They had Victor Robles on third base in the third inning and Anthony Rendon at third base with one out -- thanks to a double and a wild pitch in the sixth -- but could not bring either run home.
The extra base hit stretched Rendon’s career-high hit streak to 17 games, currently the longest such streak in the major leagues.
But in a close game with limited opportunities, the failure to bring those runs home stood out as a difference. The Nats were 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position.
“Like I said before, we got to drive in those runs with men on third base and less than two outs,” manager Davey Martinez said. “Those are important runs. We got to do those little things. When you have an opportunity to put teams away, you got to try to put them away. You can’t let them linger because you never know what’s going to happen.”
Most of the struggles were courtesy of Smith, who was outstanding again for the Marlins, mixing his slider, changeup and four-seam fastball. The Nats managed just six hits on the night and left four men on base. Their 7-8-9 hitters struck out eight out of nine at-bats.
“I said this the other day, a runner on third base with less than two outs we just got to move the ball,” Martinez said. “The strikeouts (don’t) work. We said that before, you strike out and come back to the bench, that’s it. We got to put the ball in play, move the runner. It sounds simple, yet they just have to do it.”
The big break for the Marlins against Sánchez came in the sixth. With the score tied 1-1 and one away, Miguel Rojas doubled and Isaac Galloway singled. Rosell Herrera bunted in front of Sánchez, but instead of throwing to first Sánchez threw home. Rojas stayed at third and the bases were loaded.
Sánchez then lost pinch-hitter Martín Prado to a bases loaded walk that scored Rojas and the Marlins led 2-1. He said he was disappointed to allow that walk that gave Miami the lead for good.
“The situation in the last inning, I gave a walk with the bases loaded, something that I don’t like it,” Sanchez said. “I’d rather fight with the hitter than give a walk. But you know it’s part of the game. It happens. They took really good at-bats against me. They did everything enough to win.”
On the bunt by Herrera, Sánchez thought Rojas was running home from third base. That’s why he tossed the ball to catcher Kurt Suzuki at home plate.
“I saw Rojas on the halfway and my instinct I got the ball and throw to home plate,” Sanchez explained. “It’s no chance to hurry if I go to first. I was thinking go to home plate. That’s plain just thinking ahead in that situation. That’s why I wasn’t ready for to throw to first.”
Sánchez (0-2) was pulled after walking Prado, then left-hander Matt Grace hit Curtis Granderson with a pitch to make it 3-1 Miami. He lasted 5 1/3 innings, surrendering three runs on five hits with four walks and six strikeouts.
One bright spot for the Nationals was the appearance of Joe Ross for the first time in 10 days. The right-hander fired two shutout innings. His biggest out was his first in the bottom of the sixth. With two away, Ross was able to get Brian Anderson to fly out to right field to end the rally. Ross then recorded five more outs in the seventh and eighth innings to keep the Nats in the game.
“(I was) pretty well rested but excited to be out there. Got a couple of innings. Just trying to stay in a groove when I’m not in the game is probably the hardest part. But I felt good.”
The former starting pitcher demonstrated he can come in and eat innings, hitting 96 mph with his fastball and throwing strikes. Now Martinez said he might go ahead and adjust the role for Ross and put him in again in a different role besides just long man.
“I’m all for it,” said Ross. “Like to do as much as I can to help the team win and shut down innings that we need. Our starters have been throwing really well but I feel like late in the game whatever happens things kind of fall apart at times. But I’m ready. I haven’t really thrown back-to-back or three games in a row yet but I feel good. He told me to be honest with him. I feel like I need a day. I’ll let him know but I feel good right now, it’s still early in the year.”
So with Ross turning in this outstanding performance in a hard fought one-run setback, maybe the Nats are closer to solving their most difficult problem in the first 18 games: some consistency in the bullpen from pitchers not named Sean Doolittle.
“I was very impressed with Joe today,” Martinez said. “Really impressed with Joe. Did a great job. That’s very encouraging moving forward. He’s accepting his role. Now you just got to be ready. Let me know how you feel tomorrow and be ready to go.”