MIAMI — When healthy, the Nationals lineup is something to behold, an 8-deep consortium of power, patience and potency that proved to be as effective an offensive group as there is in baseball.
But the moment one key guy goes down — or even worse, when two key guys go down as was the case Tuesday night — that lineup looks a whole lot less imposing and sees its production drop more than a little.
Tuesday's 3-0 loss to the Marlins was perhaps the starkest example of it. With Ryan Zimmerman on the disabled list with a strained hamstring and Jayson Werth on the bench with a sprained ankle, Nationals manager Matt Williams was forced to assemble a reconfigured lineup that bore little resemblance to the one that scored more runs than any other club through the first three weeks of July.
Adam LaRoche was suddenly hitting third, with Wilson Ramos in the cleanup spot. And Danny Espinosa and Nate McLouth (owners of a combined .200 batting average) brought up the rear in the 7 and 8 slots, leaving something of a black hole at the bottom of the lineup.
The end result was perhaps not surprising: The Nationals were shut out by Henderson Alvarez and a trio of Miami relievers, totaling five hits while going a collective 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position.
Were the absences of Zimmerman and Werth particularly noticeable on this night?
"Not necessarily," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "Obviously those guys are really good, and this is no discredit to them, but that guy on the mound (Alvarez) is pretty good, too. I believe, and I think we all believe, that the guys that we have, whoever, 1-through-9 every day, give us a really good chance to win. We have a really deep roster. That guy just pitched a really good game today."
Alvarez indeed pitched a gem — seven scoreless innings — but the Nationals had their opportunity to get to him early. Six batters into the game, Alvarez had issued three walks and a single and was visited by the Marlins' pitching coach and trainer as Espinosa stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and nobody out in the top of the second.
Espinosa immediately fell behind in the count 0-2, then struck out on a 2-2 low fastball, his 81st strikeout in only 212 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers this season.
McLouth stepped up next, and though he smoked a line drive to third base, Casey McGehee made a lunging catch (nearly pulling off a double play in the process). That left it up to Stephen Strasburg to deliver a clutch hit; the Nationals pitcher grounded out to second to close out the inning.
"We had him on the ropes," Williams said. "It was early, and we didn't get it done. That's part of the game. That happens sometimes. It's the first inning or it's the last inning. You have opportunities, and you just have to keep creating them. We've come through in a lot of those situations. Tonight wasn't the case."
The Nationals wouldn't get another opportunity until the sixth, when they got a leadoff double from Anthony Rendon but stranded him at third base. Then came another chance in the eighth, with two on, two out and Bryce Harper at the plate against left-handed reliever Mike Dunn in a 1-0 game.
Harper has hit lefties well this season (he was 15-for-45 with an .899 OPS entering that at-bat) and he immediately got what he thought was a good pitch to hit: a slider over the plate. But he popped it up to short, and so another scoring chance went down the drain.
"I just got under it a little bit," Harper said. "If I catch it out front a little bit, it might be a different story. Dunner, he's pretty good, dang good, throws about 95. I was sitting on a slider and got it, just missed it. Hopefully the next time I face him I can get him. Nothing I can do right now."
One final opportunity came in the ninth. Trailing 3-0 now after Jerry Blevins and Aaron Barrett combined to allow two big insurance runs, the Nationals quickly got two men on base when Desmond singled and Espinosa took a pitch off his right arm. But McLouth struck out to cap an 0-for-4 night and Werth (pinch-hitting but unable to run if he reached base) flied out to right. Denard Span singled to keep the rally going and load the bases with two outs, but Rendon struck out to end the game and send the Nationals to their fourth loss in six games since Zimmerman landed on the DL.
The positive trend over this span? Nationals starting pitchers have allowed a scant five earned runs over their last 35 innings. Yet their record in those five games is 2-3 due in part to the lack of run support from a lineup that once again isn't 100 percent healthy.
"It's good that our pitchers are going out there, our starters, and giving us a chance every night to win," Williams said. "Run support has been there, I think. Last night we scored six. It's not a question of that. It's a question of things not going the right way right now. We can change that tomorrow, though, and come ready to play."