Wednesday, April 6, 2011 10:26 p.m.
Updated at 12:16 a.m.
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By Mark ZuckermanNationals Insider
MIAMI -- The fifth inning was "the story of the ballgame," Jim Riggleman said, and it's hard to disagree with the Washington Nationals manager's assessment of Wednesday night's 7-4 loss to the Florida Marlins. It was during that fifth inning when starter Livan Hernandez turned a four-run lead into a tie game after issuing a pair of two-out walks followed by a bases-clearing triple.
The rest of the evening at Sun Life Stadium went exactly as you'd expect after a momentum shift like that. The Nationals' bullpen and defense betrayed them, and their lineup went silent against Florida's relief corps.
The end result: their seventh straight loss to the Marlins, and incredibly their 41st in 55 encounters with their division rivals over the last three-plus seasons.
There may be no surer thing in baseball right now than a Florida victory over Washington, and Riggleman and Co. know it.
"You have to start feeling that you've got to put these guys away when you have an opportunity," the manager said. "They've got a good group there, and they've had their way with us for a couple years now. There's nothing to do but battle your way out of it and bust open a ballgame to where they can't come back."
There's the key. As painful as Hernandez's fifth-inning meltdown was, it could have been moot had the Nationals simply taken advantage of their earlier opportunities to pile on and erase any realistic thought of a comeback.
The early portion of this game offered a glimpse of the Nationals' ability to generate offense through hustle and fundamentally sound baseball. Despite hitting only two balls out of the infield in the top of the second, they managed to score three runs thanks to a pair of walks, a perfectly executed hit-and-run, two successful bunts (one of them a squeeze play) and a sacrifice fly.
At the same time, those first few innings also offered a glimpse at why the Nationals are sporting a 1-4 record at the moment: Because they still couldn't come through with enough clutch hits. Amazingly, they had nine at-bats with runners in scoring position by the fourth inning, yet managed only two hits in those situations (both by Ian Desmond).
That 4-0 lead easily could have been 7-0 had someone from the heart of Washington's lineup come up with a big hit. Instead, cleanup man Adam LaRoche (1-for-9 with runners in scoring position) and No. 5 hitter Michael Morse (1-for-6) combined to strand six men on base in four innings.
"Whether you're up by a couple of runs or up seven or eight runs, you want to add to that," said LaRoche, now hitting .158 with one RBI. "Unfortunately, we got a couple of big hits, put them up, and then came back the next inning and didn't tack some more on."
Still, the Nationals did hold a 4-0 lead halfway through this game. And even after Hernandez gave the four runs back in the fifth, victory should still have been within grasp. But with the lineup going into Operation Shutdown, the bullpen had to be perfect. Which it most certainly wasn't.
Team officials still believe this relief corps will be a strength over the full season, and that may yet be the case. But at the moment the Nationals have two bullpens: The Big Three of Sean Burnett, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard (combined ERA 0.93) and the Other Four of Todd Coffey, Chad Gaudin, Doug Slaten and Brian Broderick (combined ERA 15.63).
"There's seven of us in the bullpen, last I checked. There's not three," said Coffey, who retired only two of five batters faced Wednesday and got ejected for arguing with plate umpire Tim Tschida. "It's going to take every one of us contributing to help us win. It's going to take more than one guy, two guys, three guys."
Trouble is, Riggleman doesn't have a whole lot of faith in anyone other than Burnett, Storen or Clippard right now. And since he wanted to avoid using Storen or Clippard Wednesday after each threw multiple innings the previous night, the manager had no choice but to put a tie game in the hands of Gaudin and Co.
"It's still a work in progress," Riggleman said of his bullpen. "We're going to have to be able to rely on some other guys. ... It's got to work itself out."
The Nationals' overall woes have got to quickly work itself out, too, if this team is going to avoid falling into the kind of early season hole they've become accustomed to in recent years. Five games in, it's far too early to hit the panic button, though players admit it's easy to fall into that mindset.
How do the Nationals prevent too much discouragement from seeping into their clubhouse, especially after three consecutive unsightly losses?
"It's being able to take a loss and come back the next day relaxed and ready to play," LaRoche said. "If we come back tomorrow as a team thinking about the game before and thinking about, 'Oh shoot, if we lose this one we're swept in Florida,' you're in a bad spot already. I think we have enough guys in here to not let that happen."
Maybe so. But with Marlins ace Josh Johnson looming in Thursday's finale, a lineup unable to come through in clutch situations and a bullpen that suddenly is short on depth, the Nationals certainly have put themselves in a precarious position less than one week into the season.
Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at email@example.com and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.