MIAMI — Baseball has a reputation for being among the most complex major sports in the world, but sometimes it’s actually a rather simple game.
Take the Nationals, who after a 3-2 loss to the Marlins on Friday night are now a disappointing 7-10 on the season, the vast majority of those losses coming in an all-too-familiar fashion.
“It’s later innings,” Bryce Harper said. “We can’t get a guy in, they get a guy in, and they win the ballgame.”
That really does sum up the season’s first three weeks for the Nationals. The pattern has been established and repeated, over and over. Get a good pitching performance from the starter. Scratch out a couple early runs but fail to drive home the big runs late that might win a game, while the bullpen does give up the run or two that ultimately makes the difference.
Consider the evidence…
— The Nationals have outscored their opponents, 45-37, in innings 1-through-5 so far this year but have been outscored, 30-18, from the sixth inning on.
— Their rotation has produced 12 quality starts in 17 games, yet has only five wins to show for it.
— Six of their nine losses this season have come by a margin of one or two runs.
“Our starting pitching is best in the league,” second baseman Dan Uggla said. “We’ve got a guy that’s going to give us a great chance to win every time we take the field. We just need some timely hitting, and we’ll be off to the races.”
The Nationals couldn’t get that timely hitting during Friday night’s game, despite a couple of prime opportunities late. Deadlocked in a 2-2 game in the top of the seventh, they got back-to-back, 1-out singles from Yunel Escobar and Wilson Ramos, setting the stage for a potential rally.
But Uggla proceeded to strike out on three pitches from Miami reliever A.J. Ramos, capped by an 0-2 slider that wound up 18 inches off the plate.
“I had a feeling he was going to come with another slider,” said Uggla, now 4-for-34 with nine strikeouts. “I’m pretty sure everyone in the stadium probably knew he was going to come with a slider there. I just couldn’t hold my bat back.”
The Uggla strikeout was bad enough on its own merits, but it also forced manager Matt Williams into a decision he didn’t want to have to make. With the go-ahead run still 180 feet away and now two out, he pulled Jordan Zimmermann back from the on-deck circle and sent up veteran Reed Johnson to pinch-hit. Johnson proceeded to ground out, while Zimmermann headed to the showers despite throwing only 79 pitches over six strong innings.
“It didn’t happen, but those are the chances sometimes you have to take,” Williams said. “We don’t want to just send Zim out there because he’s pitching well. We first and foremost want to win the game, so it’s important for us to take a chance there.”
Zimmermann took no issue with his manager’s decision.
“Obviously we’ve got guys on first and second,” he said. “Anybody in our lineup’s a better hitter than me, so I’m fine with the move. … National League, that’s what happens.”
The Nationals had another chance in the top of the eighth after back-to-back, 2-out walks drawn by Jayson Werth and Harper. But Ryan Zimmerman grounded to short, killing that possible rally before it had a chance to materialize.
And so another ballgame was left in the hands of the Nationals’ bullpen, which despite its collective 2.89 ERA has had a penchant for giving up one key run late. Which is exactly what happened again.
Tanner Roark, sent back to the mound after an 8-pitch seventh inning, gave up a leadoff double to Adeiny Hechavarria, and the rest was academic. Uggla fielded a chopper up the middle by Dee Gordon but had no realistic chance of throwing out the speedster at first base. Martin Prado then lined a 96 mph fastball from Aaron Barrett into shallow right field to bring home the eventual winning run.
Nationals relievers have come to accept they’ve got no margin for error in these tight, low-scoring games.
“Of course the pressure’s amplified, but it comes down to you’ve just got to execute your pitches,” Roark said. “That’s basically it. You’ve got to make sure you get that guy that you’re supposed to get.”
And, for the guys who step up to bat in those big situations late, the opposite is true.
“We were talking at the beginning of the year: If we score four runs, four or more runs, you know every single game we’ll win ballgames,” Harper said.
The 22-year-old knows what he’s talking about it. Through 17 games, the Nationals have scored an average of 3.7 runs while giving up 3.9 runs.
It’s those pesky .3 runs per night that seem to be giving this team fits right now.