MIAMI -- The Nationals took the field two weeks ago for the start of the most-anticipated season in club history brimming with confidence. They had a potent and balanced lineup, they had one of baseball's most-dominant rotations, they had a ridiculously deep bullpen and they had a talented bench more than capable of plugging any holes that developed along the way.
They also had a swagger, starting with their manager, that suggested a ballclub with no fear and every reason to believe it could live up to the lofty expectations placed upon it.
That may still all prove true in the end, and the Nationals are by no means in shambles at the moment, still sitting two games above .500 with as talented a roster as there is in the sport. But there's no question that swagger has diminished some during the season's first two weeks, especially in the case of a couple of veteran players with strong track records who suddenly find themselves struggling unlike either ever has before.
The Nationals' 8-2 loss to the Marlins on Tuesday night -- their fourth loss in five days -- became reality after a mid-game meltdown precipitated by mistakes made by Ryan Zimmerman and Dan Haren.
Zimmerman got the ball rolling downhill when he threw wide of first base on a routine grounder in the bottom of the fourth, his fourth throwing error in five days. Haren then exacerbated matters, allowing hits to six of the next nine batters he faced, including a three-run homer, turning a scoreless game into a 7-0 deficit in the span of about 20 minutes.
"Just one little miscue, and a couple little hits and then a bomb," manager Davey Johnson said. "Then the roof kinda caved in the next inning."
Thus concluded Haren's latest laborious start as a member of the Nationals. He has now made three starts, and he's yet to reach the sixth inning. He's allowed 23 hits (five of them homers) in only 13 1/3 innings, and he's taking full responsibility for all of it.
"Something's got to change on my part," the 32-year-old right-hander said. "I've got to start getting guys out. It's not this hard. I've done it for 10, 11 years. You know, I feel good enough to get guys out. I just made a few mistakes. I'm just giving up way too many hits and letting way too many runners on base."
Who knows how the fourth inning of this game might have played out had Zimmerman merely made a strong throw across the diamond on Placido Polanco's routine grounder to his left. It's the kind of throw the former Gold Glove Award winner has made thousands of times in his career, but it seems as though each successive one has become more and more likely to be off-target.
Zimmerman struggled to make those throws at times last season, but a shoulder tear certainly had some effect on his throwing motion. Fully healed now following offseason surgery, he's still having trouble making the routine throws while continuing to excel on more difficult plays.
"Nobody's more frustrated than me," Zimmerman said. "I'm the guy out there that doesn't want to do it more than anyone. Danny's rolling along and throwing the ball well, and I've got to get the ball and throw it. I feel like I throw it fine, so it's frustrating for me. But hey, I've got to go back out there tomorrow and work on my game and stay with it, because I know all these guys will do the same thing."
Zimmerman approached both first baseman Adam LaRoche and shortstop Ian Desmond in the dugout following this latest error, asking his teammates if they saw anything that would explain his struggles. To Desmond, it's clear Zimmerman simply needs a confidence boost.
"He's an unbelievable talent, and he's got to remember that," Desmond said. "He's got a Gold Glove in his house. He knows how to do it. He needs to get out of his own head, just like we all do. I made 40 errors a year. It's part of the game. You have to go through that stuff. And there's nobody I think would be able to bounce back from it more than he would."
Zimmerman's error might not have loomed so large had Haren been able to right the ship. But he couldn't pick up his teammate, instead allowing back-to-back singles following the error, and later leaving an 85-mph splitter over the heart of the plate and watching as Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria clobbered it over the left-field fence.
"I've got to be able to pick the guy up," Haren said of Zimmerman. "That's part of baseball. They pick me up, I pick them up. I'm sure that he probably feels bad about the home run that the guys came around and score. But, I mean, I've got to be able to pick him up. They taxed me pretty good that inning, and I just didn't have nothing after that."
No, he didn't. Haren's struggles continued in the fifth, with four of five batters reaching base. His night ended in ignominious fashion, issuing a bases-loaded walk to Greg Dobbs, the first free pass he has issued this season.
"I just, I ran out of gas," he said. "I mean, I'm throwing 100 pitches in five innings. That's a lot of work. Like I said before, it's not this hard. I've thrown 100-pitch complete games. Not five innings, 100 pitches. It's too hard to do."
The Nationals will stick with Haren -- based both on his track record and the fact they're paying him $13 million -- but like Zimmerman, they hope he won't completely lose confidence in himself and start pressing.
"I don't think it's going to be easy for any pitcher to walk onto this team and say: 'I'm going to be better than the four guys you've already got. I'm going to pitch up to the level of what you've already got,'" Desmond said. "It's not an easy team for a pitcher to come in and feel like you're one of the guys, when you've got everybody else throwing 98 [mph] with five pitches. But I don't think he sees his value. He battled. He's battled all year for us. He obviously hasn't hit his stride yet, but what he's doing, the way he's handling himself, is something for our other guys to learn from."