MIAMI -- If not for the giant scoreboard above the center field fence at Marlins Park, the Nationals might never have known they only scored three runs Monday night. As many balls as they hit hard as a team, as many strong individual offensive performances as they got, surely they must have put up a nice, crooked number on that scoreboard.
Nope. At the end of the night, the Nationals were on the wrong end of a 5-3 decision that left more than a few people inside their clubhouse baffled given the way they felt they swung the bat.
"Yeah, but I guess that's better," Ryan Zimmerman said. "We're putting ourselves in a position to score runs each game. A month ago, you couldn't really say that. As long as we keep giving ourselves opportunities like we hit the ball today, I think it's going to even out."
This was a game designed to support sabermetricians who stress the inability of pitchers or hitters from accounting for where the ball goes once it strikes bat. Nationals players couldn't have been much more pleased with the contact they made; and they couldn't have been less pleased with the end results.
They collected 11 hits in total, at least one in every inning save the fifth (which still featured a leadoff walk). Miami's pitchers seemed to be working out of the stretch the entire night, yet they consistently were bailed out by well-struck balls that happened to be hit directly at one of their fielders.
That included an incredible four double plays in the first six innings, two of which came on line drives smoked by Adam LaRoche and Bryce Harper, another on a scorched grounder up the middle by Jesus Flores that still turned into a 6-4-3 twin-killing.
"We hit the ball on the button," manager Davey Johnson said. "I don't know how many, three double plays we hit into? Four? But we did swing the bats good. We just didn't get the big hit."
Despite all that, the Nationals held a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the third, thanks to Flores' sacrifice fly that scored Danny Espinosa and Zimmerman's seventh homer in his last 18 games (a bomb that landed in the Clevelander night club beyond the left-field fence.
But starter Edwin Jackson gave both runs back, and then two more in rapid-fire succession. It began with a leadoff single to opposing pitcher Carlos Zambrano, continued with a single by Jose Reyes and then featured a two-run single by Carlos Lee on a slider at his shoelaces.
"It was down, but clearly not down enough," lamented Jackson, who was working on 11 days rest through the All-Star break. "He could still hit it good enough to get it in. I was trying to throw it down. I guess I should have bounced it."
The game now tied, Jackson fell into his most troublesome tendency: Letting an already shaky inning get worse.
This has happened to him several times this season. In fact, of the 46 total earned runs Jackson has allowed in 2012, 17 of them have come in only four of his 106 13 innings: a five-run first inning against the Astros on April 19, another five-run first on June 28 at the Rockies, a three-run run first on July 4 against the Giants and Monday night's four-run third in Miami.
Throw out those four ugly innings, and Jackson's season ERA is a sparkling 2.55 instead of its actual 3.89 figure.
"The game of baseball is damage control," he said. "Whether one inning is one run, two runs or three runs, it's just staying out of the big inning. It's a matter of making pitches when you have to."
Jackson couldn't make the pitch when he had to during Monday's third inning. After falling behind 1-0 to Hanley Ramirez, he grooved a fastball over the heart of the plate, and the Marlins third baseman tattooed the ball off the gaudy home run sculpture beyond the fence in left-center.
Little did Jackson or the Nationals realize at the time those four runs would be enough for the Marlins to win the game. Though they got one of them back in the sixth on Zimmerman's double and Michael Morse's RBI single, they watched as yet another rally was quashed by a heartbreaking double play.
With the bases loaded and two outs, Flores sent Zambrano's final pitch of the night on a beeline up the middle. If it squirted through, two runs would have scored and the Nationals would have taken the lead. Instead, Reyes made a lunging grab to his left and set in motion a 6-4-3 double play: the fourth the Nationals hit into over the course of six innings.
"I'm trying to look for a good pitch to hit and drive those runs in," Flores said. "Unfortunately, I hit it back to someone."
It was the story of the night for a Nationals club that was hoping to leave town with a series victory over a division rival but instead had to settle for a four-game split heading into a crucial homestand against the Mets and Braves.
"Yeah, but I like the way everybody's playing," Johnson said. "We're playing hard, we battled back. We gave ourselves every chance to win that ballgame. That's what good teams do."