(August 3, 2012, by Stephen Walker at Nationals Park)
Anyone who pitched in Little League quickly learns that you can’t pitch well if you lose your composure.
In an otherwise brilliant performance, Washington Nationals’ pitcher Gio Gonzalez came temporarily unglued after allowing a single to Miami Marlins’ pitcher Josh Johnson with one out in the sixth inning. After a Emilio Bonifacio line out, the temperamental Gonzalez (13-6) allowed the next four Marlins to reach base, leading to three runs and turning a 1-0 lead into a two-run deficit in a game the Nationals eventually lost, 5-2, to earn a split of the two-game Friday night set. (Washington, behind John Lannan, won the first game, 7-4).
The one-inning meltdown in a game where Gonzalez went 8 innings and struck out 10 was one inning too many because Gonzalez’s rival, Marlins’ starter Josh Johnson pitched even better. Johnson (7-7) gave up a scant 5 hits, walked none, and fanned 9. As a reminder of the bad old days in D.C., Johnson improved his career mark against Washington to 9-1.
After a Stephen Lombardozzi triple to lead off the game, Johnson kept the Nationals off balance with a stunningly accurate and effective array of change-ups, hard sliders, and curve balls. Early in the game, the Nationals hit many balls hard, but right at Marlins’ defenders. Later, Johnson induced weak contact. Any batter unfortunate enough to have a two-strike count looked utterly helpless as Johnson threw every pitch in his arsenal for strikes. To beat him, Gonzalez needed to be almost perfect and, with the exception of one inning, he nearly was.
Only a Michael Morse infield single on his 115th pitch with two out in the 9th could Chase Johnson from the game. On the play, Bonifacio injured his hand and Bryce Harper scored the Nationals second and final run when the Marlins’ second baseman weakly flung the ball toward the infield.
Marlins’ manager Ozzie Guillen removed Johnson for Steve Cishek. Cishek did not throw a single pitch over the plate, but slumping Danny Espinosa, who had a miserable game, swung at all but the first one and struck out with Roger Bernadina, who had hit the ball hard on three occasions across the two games, left on deck representing the tying run. Cishek’s one out save was his sixth of the season.
The loss dropped the Nationals record to 63-43 and, since the Braves beat the hapless Houston Astros earlier in the evening, reduced their lead over Atlanta to just two games. So far on this home stand against two struggling division rivals, the Nationals are 2-3.
Champ of the Game: Johnson, who is no longer a power pitcher, but, when he can throw his breaking pitches for strikes, is still tough to beat.
For the Nationals, despite his one bad inning and inexcusable loss of composure, Gonzalez pitched well and helped preserve a tired bullpen that, other than Tyler Clippard in game one, had a miserable evening.
Chump of the Game: Espinosa went 0-4 with three strikeouts, chasing numerous pitches that were all far from the strike zone. He even bounced a few throws to first that Adam LaRoche deftly scooped. He also made a killing mental mistake that cost the Nats a run in the 8th inning (see Unsung Hero below). Espinosa looks tired, but cannot take a day off as the Nationals lack anyone else to play shortstop.
A dishonorable mention goes to Craig Stammen, who failed to retire Johnson (who went 2-3) with two out in the top of the 9th and allowed a run to put the Nationals even further behind. Stammen, dominant early in the season, has slumped, having difficulty throwing his biting slider for strikes. He may have an undisclosed injury that is limiting his effectiveness.
For the Marlins, Austin Kearns went 0-3 with two strikeouts and, in his other at-bat squelched a potential rally by swinging at the first pitch and bouncing into an easy double play.
Unsung Hero: Jose Reyes for the Marlins went 3-5 and scored two runs, including the back-breaker in the 8th inning. After legging out a double (and getting a charitable safe call at second from umpire Fieldin Culbreth after Harper made a strong throw to Espinosa to apparently nail Reyes), Reyes took off for third as Carlos Lee chopped a grounder to Espinosa. The Nationals shortstop never looked at Reyes, who simply made the turn at third and kept going. LaRoche’s throw to the plate was far too late and the Marlins had a three-run lead.
Next Game: Tomorrow, Saturday, August 4, 7:05 at Nationals Park. Jordan Zimmermann (8-6, 2.28 ERA) July’s National League Pitcher of the Month faces Mark Buehrle (9-10, 3.60) who spurned the Nationals offer for the Marlins 4-year deal. Buehrle dominated the Nats the last time he faced them and Zimmermann has been fabulous for Washington, so the game shapes up as a potentially fine pitchers’ duel.