There are two types of waves Major League Baseball teams can ride into the All Star Break.
The first is a solid push to move up the division ranks just before the stretch, reminding everyone at the symbolic halfway-mark that, even if the offensive numbers, relief pitching or overall win-loss column fail to match up with the best of the best, the team cannot be discounted in the second half.
The second path is less encouraging – a bad road stretch, for instance, combined with missing pieces on the bench or in the pitching rotation, a consistently slow-to-awaken offense, or an inability to gain ground in a division that doesn’t compare with the others.
While the Washington Nationals have one more game to play before the break, which will decide whether or not they enter the stretch above or below .500, the team has certainly caught no freebies as of late, riding a 1-5 record on the current road stint, with one game left against the Miami Marlins.
There may be plenty of time left in the season – not to mention, a long-awaited home-stand to start the second half – but Saturday night’s 10th-inning 2-1 loss to the Miami Marlins gave cause for frustration if not downright concern.
Dan Haren, who entered the game with a 4-10 record and a 6.00 ERA, pitched his best game of the season, attributing his success to time spent resting his right shoulder.
Regardless of the cause, Haren was sharp, allowing no runs on three hits and one walk in six innings pitched. He fanned seven, threw 55 of 90 pitches for strikes and, in a day’s work, lowered his ERA to 5.61.
But, as the Nationals have demonstrated all season, quality starts may not always translate into wins.
The Nats’ first – and only – run of the game came in the fourth inning, after Bryce Harper walked and Adam LaRoche singled to left off RHP Jose Fernandez. With little pomp and circumstance, Jayson Werth hit a sacrifice fly to center to bat in Harper and put Washington up 1-0.
Fernandez went on to complete a solid performance – allowing one run on four hits and three walks in six innings pitched. Like Haren, he exited the game with no hope for a win, but the Marlins would eventually erase his potential for a loss.
Before the game had even reached that point, the Nats’ frustrations became apparent.
In the eighth inning, after going 0-for-3 with two strikeouts, Harper argued balls and strikes with home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt who rightfully ejected Harper from the game. Scott Hairston entered as Harper’s replacement, which cost the Nationals a key opportunity to have their most touted bat again with the game on the line.
Before Hairston’s turn could come up in the order, the Marlins had to do something to spoil Haren’s good start, along with Drew Storen’s and Tyler Clippard’s combined two innings of relief.
It didn’t take long for Miami to cash in off Rafael Soriano in the ninth.
On Soriano’s fourth pitch to Giancarlo Stanton, Stanton belted a homer over the left-field wall to tie the game.
Chad Tracy led off the top of the 10th with a single for the Nats before Denard Span bunted into a force out. Ian Desmond singled to right to keep the inning alive with runners at first and second, but Hairston and Ryan Zimmerman struck out back-to-back to end the Nats’ scoring chances.
Craig Stammen took the mound in the 10th, only to be handed a runner on first – Adeiny Hechavarria – thanks to a throwing error by Tracy at third.
Jeff Mathis drew a walk before Placido Polanco advanced Hechavarria to third on a bunt.
Stammen intentionally walked Justin Ruggiano, but the strategy failed to work. In the next at-bat, Ed Lucas grounded into a force out to bring home Hechavarria for the game-winning run.
THE GOOD: If rest was all Dan Haren really needed, the Washington Nationals have at least one reason to celebrate the fast-approaching All Star Break. He may have lasted just six innings, but Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard did their parts to keep the momentum going from the mound.
THE BAD: Rafael Soriano’s blown save in the ninth marked his fourth of the season. The homer to Giancarlo Stanton may have been his only hit allowed, but on a night where the Nats did very little from the batter’s box, one swing of the bat against a hanging pitch was all it took.
The Nats, in theory, out-hit the Marlins, but all seven of their hits were singles and the team collectively stranded nine batters, going 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position. The Nationals also struck out a total of 11 times in Saturday’s game.
THE UGLY: Arguing balls and strikes gets a hitter nowhere. Worse yet, arguing balls and strikes in a close contest – let alone a game that could determine whether your team winds up below or above .500 at the All Star Break – can cost you a critical at-bat.
THE STATS: 1 R, 7 H, 5 BB, 11 K, 1 E, 0-7 RISP, 9 LOB
NEXT GAME: Sunday, 1:10 p.m. at Marlins Park – RHP Taylor Jordan (0-2, 3.45) vs. RHP Henderson Alvarez (0-1, 5.73)