All night long, they waited for their lineup to strike. It felt like it was going to happen eventually, right? Someone would get a rally going against the Marlins bullpen and bring the Nationals back from the one-run deficit they had faced nearly the entire game, right?
Well, no. It never happened. And so another eminently winnable ballgame was won not by the Nationals but by their opponents.
Held to two early solo homers by Yan Gomes and Trea Turner, the Nats were silenced the rest of the night by the Marlins, who made their early three-run homer off Patrick Corbin hold up for a 3-2 victory on South Capitol Street.
“We just didn’t hit the ball tonight,” manager Davey Martinez said matter-of-factly during his postgame Zoom session with reporters.
No, they didn’t. And it’s not the first time this has happened. This was only the latest example of a Nationals lineup that has alternated between highly productive and ice cold through the season’s first 22 games. They’ve scored eight or more runs eight times, but they’ve scored two or fewer runs 10 times.
“We’ve got to stay up the middle of the field,” Martinez said, repeating one of his favorite hitting approach mantras. “These guys threw a lot of breaking pitches, a lot of changeups. We’ve got to just stay back and use the whole field.”
It’s a formula that hasn’t totaled up to the kind of record the defending champs envisioned when this 60-game sprint began four weeks ago. At 9-13, this team is looking up at the rest of the National League East.
“We haven’t really had a long winning streak this year - or a long losing streak,” Corbin said. “It seems like we’re maybe not playing the best baseball at all times. But you definitely see glimpses of that. There are some games when the offense comes out and puts up a bunch of hits, and maybe some days when the pitching’s not there. But hopefully I think the deeper this goes - even though it’s 60 games - hopefully guys are going to be more consistent. That’s really all we want.”
This low-scoring loss was all the more frustrating because it came on a night when the Nationals starter actually gave them quality innings, something that has been in unexpected short supply this season.
Corbin wasn’t entirely himself early on. He struck out four of the first eight batters he faced, but three of those came via fastballs, not on his usual go-to slider - “Maybe it was the first time I’ve ever done it,” he joked.
And when he left a 2-0 fastball at the letters to Miguel Rojas with two on and two out in the top of the second, Corbin and the Nationals were suddenly staring at a 3-0 deficit. Rojas, making his return to the Marlins lineup nearly four weeks after contracting COVID-19, circled the bases to a chorus of cheers from his dugout.
“Fell behind 2-0, and that was just right down the middle,” Corbin said. “Just a mistake there. But I felt like I was in the zone better today.”
He was. Slowly but surely, Corbin rediscovered himself. Though he continued to put a hefty number of runners on base (eight in his first 4 2/3 innings), he found his wipeout slider at last and ratcheted up his strikeout total (nine through 5 2/3 innings).
And in reaching the seventh inning, Corbin did something he had done only once before this season, allowing Martinez to manage his bullpen the way he prefers.
“To go into the seventh on his own, that’s pretty impressive,” Gomes said. “He kept us in the ballgame. At any point like that when you give up a three-run (homer) early, you can kind of lose your rhythm and go short. He gave us a heck of an outing. We wish we could’ve picked him up.”
Corbin’s mid-seventh departure did mean a heavy dose of Tanner Rainey in a big spot late. With Corbin fading after allowing a one-out single followed by a double, Martinez summoned his best fireman to put out the blaze. And Rainey once again delivered. Despite initially walking Jesús Aguilar to load the bases, the big right-hander proceeded to strike out Francisco Cervelli on a 97 mph fastball and then get Brian Anderson to line out to left, leaving him a perfect 9-for-9 in stranding inherited runners this season.
The Nationals’ pitching effectiveness was all well and good, but it wouldn’t mean much if the lineup couldn’t produce. And that proved to be a struggle tonight.
The only runs the Nats plated in five innings against Marlins starter Eliesar Hernandez came via solo homers: Gomes’ 100th career blast in the bottom of the second and Turner’s fifth of the season in the bottom of the third.
Otherwise, the Nationals had very little to get excited about at the plate. And things got no better once Hernandez departed. Lefty Stephen Tarpley did what nobody else has done this season and made both Juan Soto and Asdrúbal Cabrera look lost during a perfect bottom of the sixth.
“He has a good two-seamer and a good slider,” Martinez said. “Really good. I think as much as you see him on video, his ball was sinking pretty good today.”
And despite putting two on with two out in the seventh, Victor Robles struck out on a slider from James Hoyt, leaving the Nats trailing by a run and running out of time to make something happen.
They never did.
“We kept it close,” Martinez said. “We had those last six outs to try to make something happen. We just couldn’t get it done tonight.”