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A rough end to Nats' tough road trip

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A rough end to Nats' tough road trip

MIAMI -- They entered this futuristic, psychedelic ballpark on Monday flying high as a kite, winners in five of the first six games of this key road trip and holding a season-high 2 12-game lead in the NL East.

By the time they packed their bags Wednesday night to head home, the Nationals were stinging from a sweep at hands of their longtime nemeses, their stranglehold on baseball's toughest division down to a mere 12-game following a 5-3 loss to the resurgent Marlins.

"It's definitely tough," left-hander Ross Detwiler said. "We hit a hot team at the wrong time."

Did they ever. A Miami club that appeared on the verge of self-inflicted implosion not long ago just completed the most-successful month in franchise history, going 21-8 in May. They've got one of the most-feared hitters in the game today in Giancarlo Cruz-Michael Stanton and a deep rotation that held the Nationals to six earned runs in this series.

And, unlike everyone else in the division, they've managed to avoid crushing injuries.

Because of that, the Nationals head home a bit dazed, having failed to capitalize on their dominant performances in Philadelphia and Atlanta, ultimately finishing this trip with a 5-4 record.

"Unfortunately, it happens," second baseman Danny Espinosa said. "Overall, I think if you look at the road trip, we did alright. It's tough to play on the road, a new stadium. It doesn't feel good to get swept, but if you look at the overall picture, we did play well on the road."

The Nationals weren't whitewashed by the Marlins; they lost each of these three games by two runs. Which meant they were done in by a handful of key mistakes each night.

On Wednesday, most of those mistakes came out of the right hand of Chien-Ming Wang, who in his first start of the season battled some rare command issues and wound up unable to record even one out in the fifth inning.

Wang faced 22 batters and allowed 12 of them to reach safely via seven hits, three walks, a hit batter and a fielder's choice.

"I'm kind of disappointed in myself today for the performance," the Taiwanese hurler said through interpreter John Hsu.

Wang actually displayed some of the best "stuff" he's shown in years, dialing his sinker up to 94 mph and mixing in some sharp breaking balls. But when he needed to find the strike zone, he couldn't, particularly after being handed a 3-1 lead in the fourth via back-to-back RBI hits from Espinosa and Roger Bernadina.

Wang immediately walked the first two Miami batters he faced in the bottom of the inning, Logan Morrison and Bryan Petersen, on nine total pitches. Both runners wound up coming around to score.

"I thought he was a little rusty," manager Davey Johnson said. "I think he'll be better next time out."

There will be a next time for Wang, Johnson insisted, though each time the veteran takes the mound, it feels like he's auditioning to retain the final spot in the Nationals' rotation over Detwiler (who was bumped to the bullpen this week).

"He's in the rotation," Johnson said. "He's a replacing a guy that threw the ball pretty good for me. But I like the upside of Chien-Ming, and we'll just play it by ear as it goes."

Detwiler, who labored through his last three starts, performed well in relief of Wang on Wednesday, allowing one inherited runner to score in the fifth before facing the minimum in the sixth.

Knowing he would only be used for at most a couple of innings, the left-hander was able to cut loose from the moment he entered, and it showed: He struck out the first batter he faced, Morrison, on a 95 mph fastball.

"I don't have to hold anything back," Detwiler said of pitching in relief. "That's one thing: When you're kind of scuffling, you're trying to think too much. Coming out of the 'pen, it's just go out there and get 'em."

Detwiler managed to keep this a one-run game into the seventh, but that's when the Nationals were yet again victimized by the fearsome Stanton. The 22-year-old slugger already homered in Monday's series opener, then contributed a key RBI single on Tuesday.

This time, he dug in against right-hander Ryan Perry and hammered a hanging slider 413 feet to left field for his 12th home run of the month and his 11th home run in 34 career games against the Nationals.

You can't make a mistake on a hitter that's big and strong like him," Johnson said. "Boy, Perry threw a little back-up slider and he straightened it out. I like our chances if we could stay within one run but every time, we'd give up a home run to one of their big guys. One run is easier to come back from than two."

Indeed, the Nationals were unable to erase the two-run deficit in any of these three games. They did put the tying run on base in the ninth inning Wednesday, but Miami closer Heath Bell struck out pinch-hitter Rick Ankiel looking to end the game and complete the series sweep at Marlins Park.

Thus concluded an eventful road trip that featured some distinct high points but also another run of injuries. Reliever Ryan Mattheus needed foot surgery. Pinch-hitter Chad Tracy needed groin surgery. Catcher Jesus Flores needed to rest his hamstring. And then reliever Henry Rodriguez slammed a finger on his throwing hand in a bathroom door, knocking him out of commission for a day.

The Nationals could feel sorry for themselves at the end of all that. On the other hand, they can take solace in knowing they're still eight games over .500, with cleanup hitter Michael Morse perhaps ready to make his season debut Friday night against the Braves.

"We're still in first place," Detwiler said. "We have to go out there Friday and say: 'We're still in first place. We're still the team to beat.'"

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Nationals players were critical of Dave Martinez's decision-making in the first half

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Nationals players were critical of Dave Martinez's decision-making in the first half

Baseball fans love the long ball. They love the flashy plays. They love the no-hit bids and the rare perfect game. All of these things dominate headlines and capture our attention. 

The often overlooked bullpen of a club, however, almost always serves as the glue holding everything together. Relief pitching is derived of unsung heroes who are asked to perform on short notice and in sticky, high-pressure situations. 

Head skipper of the Washington Nationals, Dave Martinez, is being criticized for his handling of the bullpen during the first half of the season. 

By now it's well-documented that the Nats played their first 96 games at .500 leaving the club in third place in a division the team has dominated much of the last two years. 

Sure, one can chalk it up to injuries, lack of roster changes or an inexperienced first-year manager working through kinks. But, there's a reason this team expects to compete for a pennant year in and year out: depth. The buzz around Martinez's decision-making continues to point toward his inability to dish out relief pitching assignments to the player's liking.  

Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle, Sammy Solis and Matt Grace once made up the team's relief staff in May. Between disabled-list periods for Kintzler and Madson, and Sammy Solis being sent down to Class AAA Syracuse, the staff took a beating in the month of June. 

Nats relievers aren't necessarily upset about overuse, but more so because of a lack of communication between player and manager. 

“A lot of times when Davey asks, you just tell him, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m good,’ ” Madson said. “He’s got a lot of stuff to worry about. It’s typical for bullpen guys not to be as honest with the manager. That’s just the dynamic there.”

But there did reach a point where relievers -- Kintzler, Madson and Solis in particular -- felt overworked and that their wishes were not being acknowledged nor granted by Martinez. 

Sean Doolittle was quick to point out that the addition of Kelvin Herrera, who joined the team on June 18, sparked a change in Martinez's approach. 

“Over the last maybe month or so, maybe since we got Herrera, he’s gone around to the relievers and been a lot more proactive with that communication,” Doolittle said. “I think that’s helped.”

On a more complicated note, trust has also been targeted as an area needing improvement. 

When a starter gets in a jam or doesn't seem like he is 100%, Martinez often calls on reinforcements to begin the warming up process. Guys have noticed a pattern in which relief pitchers who initially warm up are often not the ones who start the following inning. 

From a relief pitcher's perspective, this is a sign of Martinez's distrust. Dramatic or not, there was a glaring disconnect throughout the first half of play. 

“With a veteran group, I think we all expect to come into a team and say we’ve all been there; we just want things to go boom, boom, boom and be a piece of cake. But we also all know it’s not like that,” Shawn Kelley said. “ . . . It’s funny: I think you could probably go anywhere and complain about the manager 

as a reliever. I don’t know if any manager has ever had seven relievers say, ‘He was perfect.’ ”

Handling his veteran rotation in the second half of the season should become easier for Martinez as Stephen Strasburg is expected to start Friday. The right-hander was placed on the disabled list June 10 with right shoulder inflammation. 

Strasburg pitched 5 2/3 innings in a rehab start for Class A Potomac on Sunday, allowing three runs while striking out seven and walking one. It was his second rehab start since going on the DL. He allowed one run in 3 1/3 innings for Potomac on July 11. Strasburg is 6-6 with a 3.46 ERA this season, striking out 

95 in 80 2/3 innings.

One thing that hasn't been criticized is Martinez's positive attitude. Players often rave about him as a person and how he brings a source of energy in the clubhouse. 

This was on full display during Monday night's Home Run Derby at Nationals Park. 

Moments after Bryce Harper won the Derby, Martinez was among the first to congratulate his All-Star slugger as he hoisted him in the air. 

As the second half of the season gets underway Friday, expect to see a manager who brings forth an openminded approach to his club while in pursuit of a deep October run. 

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Max Scherzer thoroughly enjoyed the All-Star experience in D.C.

Max Scherzer thoroughly enjoyed the All-Star experience in D.C.

All-Star Weekend is entertaining for fans and provides and much-needed break in the 162-game MLB season.

It’s not all just for fun, though. Following his start Tuesday night, Max Scherzer shared the benefits of being able to spend a few days sharing a locker room with players from across the league.

Being in the clubhouse, talking to veterans, talking to guys who have been here, getting to know everybody, getting the personalities, you can actually learn a lot from the other players in the league. They’re watching you, they’re watching your team and you get these conversations and it’s great. You’re talking about everybody and you find little things in the game that make them successful and what made you successful and see if you can get better.

Scherzer also didn’t hold back when talking about how great a job the city and his team did hosting the rest of the league. This is his sixth season as an All-Star, so he's speaking from quite a bit of experience.

It was awesome, what an atmosphere. I thought we were a great host team, all the other players in here loved the facilities and the treatment they received - D.C. did it right.

So according to Max Scherzer, the All-Star Game is great, but All-Star Weekend in D.C. is as good as it gets.

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