Baseball can be a cruel game. With the Marlins, and their temperamental manager Ozzie Guillen and hot-headed starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano poised for a Jose Guillen-like meltdown, the Nationals sprayed line drives and hard ground balls all over the Marlins’ new stadium. Unfortunately, with Nationals clogging the bases, those shots all found Marlin gloves for four crushing double plays as the Marlins defeated the Nationals, 5-3 to earn a split of the first series following the all-star break. The loss reduces the Nats lead to 2.5 games over the Atlanta Braves.
The Nationals jumped to an early 2-0 lead, but it could have been much more. In the first inning, with runners on first and second and one out, Adam LaRoche got the green light on a Zambrano 3-0 pitch. He crushed a fastball on a line toward right centerfield, but not high enough to elude the grasp of Miami’s second baseman, Omar Infante. After making a fine catch, Infante doubled Bryce Harper off of second base. It was a harbinger of things to come.
The Marlins rallied for four runs off of Nats’ starter Edwin Jackson in the third inning. The Nationals struggled to rally from this deficit, despite Zambrano’s wildness. The Marlins pitcher, who had an ERA over 6.00 in his last nine starts and often lets his temper get the best of him, kept escaping jams after being behind in the count. Try as the may, the Nationals hit into double plays again in the fourth (Roger Bernadina) and fifth (Harper on a line drive) innings.
Washington finally broke through in their half of the sixth. With Ryan Zimmerman (3-3, home run, walk) on second, Michael Morse scored him with a single to center. The Nationals trailed 4-3 and Guillen had pitchers throwing in the bullpen. Danny Espinosa doubled, but Morse had to stop halfway to second to make sure Miami’s left fielder, Logan Morrison, did not catch the ball. He held at third as Espinosa cruised into second base.
That additional bit of bad fortune hurt the Nationals. Bernadina walked after Zambrano had run the count to 2-2. The pitches were borderline, but Carlos and Ozzie didn’t get the calls they wanted from home plate umpire D. J. Reyburn.
Jesus Flores, the Nationals weak hitting catcher (.234, on-base percentage below .280 and a paltry .621 OPS) strode to the plate as Zambrano and his manager seethed. The Marlins’ starter’s first two pitches missed the mark, neither even close to the strike zone. The meltdown the Nationals had been waiting for seemed imminent. The next pitch broke down, once again far from the strike zone, but Flores hacked at it and missed. The gift saved Zambrano from a 3-0 count with the bases loaded, one out, and Guillen poise to give him the hook.
Flores smashed the next pitch…right into the glove of Miami shortstop Jose Reyes for an easy inning-ending double play. In the bottom of the seventh, the Marlins plated an insurance run on a perfectly executed squeeze bunt by former National Emilio Bonifacio. The Nationals threatened in the ninth against Marlins’ closer-of-the-day Mike Dunn (4.76 ERA), but the southpaw fanned LaRoche looking to end the game and Washington’s hopes of winning its first series after the all-star break. The loss drops their season record against their long time nemesis from Florida to 4-5.
Also, the game had none of the predicted fireworks between Guillen, Washington manager Davey Johnson, and Harper. No beanballs. No arguments. Just baseball.
Champ of the Game: Ryan Zimmerman continued his hot hitting with a 3-3 night and his 10th homer of the season. He came up a triple short of the cycle. Kudos also to Danny Espinosa (3-4 and a home run shy of the cycle) and Morse (3-4, RBI).
For the Marlins, Carlos Lee (single) and Henry Ramirez (home run) had key 2-RBI hits in the Marlins decisive 4-run rally. Zambrano also deserves credit for gutting his way through an uneven performance and keeping his composure to earn a win the Marlins sorely needed.
Chump of the Game: LaRoche, who went 0-5 with three strikeouts, reducing his batting average to .258. He ended the game with the bat on his shoulder. Not a good thing with the tying runs on base. He stranded seven runners and looks in great need of a day off.
Also worrisome is Jackson. His velocity is down 2-3 MPH and he has allowed 16 runs in his last 13.2 innings (kudos to Nats Insider and CSN Washington Nationals beat reporter Mark Zuckerman for this information). The velocity drop and the results foretell an injury the Nats either haven’t diagnosed yet or don’t want to reveal.
For the Marlins, Greg Dobbs went 0-3 and botched a few plays in right field, unfamiliar territory for the corner infielder.
Unsung Hero: Henry Rodriguez pitched a clean inning, giving the Nats one last chance to come back.
For the Marlins, Heath Bell, who dominates the Nationals and pitches batting practice to everyone else, pitched a fine eighth inning, keeping Washington two runs behind.
Next Game: The Nationals return home for a crucial seven game series against their closest rivals in the NL East, the New York Mets and the Atlanta Braves. It all begins tomorrow evening, July 17, 7:05 at Nationals Park. Ross Detwiler (4-3, 3.43 ERA) faces Jon Niese (7-4, 3.73 ERA).