MIAMI -- On track to sweep the weekend series at Marlins Park, the postseason-hopeful Nationals instead watched their bullpen implode -- a recurring theme during the 2019 season. This time, the Nats couldn’t recover from a four-run seventh inning in a 5-3 defeat to the Marlins on Sunday.
Washington fell into a virtual tie with Milwaukee for the first National League Wild Card spot after holding a 3 1/2-game cushion on Labor Day. The Nats have dropped 10 of 18 since Sept. 2. With the Cubs’ loss to the Cardinals, though, the Nats’ magic number now sits at four.
“I'm not really concerned,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said of his relief corps. “You know what? I trust these guys. You see guys come in one day, they're really good and get big outs for us. The next day, it just doesn’t happen. Let’s just get consistent. We’ve got a few games left. Let’s come back tomorrow and take another lead, and I trust all those guys in the bullpen, I really do. And they know what’s at stake and they know they’re giving this team everything they’ve got. I’ve asked them to do a lot, and they’ve always stepped up, so let’s keep it going.”
Rookie Austin Voth allowed one run over five innings and recorded his first career RBI, leaving the game in line for the win with the Nats ahead, 3-1. But Martinez needed to use three relievers to record three outs during the Marlins’ go-ahead seventh.
Hunter Strickland, a Trade Deadline acquisition, had recorded more than three outs in an appearance just once this season. With a shorthanded bullpen, an efficient sixth and the bottom of Miami’s order to deal with, Martinez elected to go with him for a second inning of work.
Jon Berti followed with a two-run double that chased Suero, who was pitching for a third straight day for the fifth time this season. The right-hander has already exceeded last season’s innings total, with his 69 frames his most since 2015. Suero said he feels good at this point of the season, instead blaming his inability to control his cutter -- perhaps because of the adrenaline from a game setting.
“I feel like it's the same issue that I’m having when I pitch,” Suero said through an interpreter about his pickoffs. “My release point I try to keep it the same, and when it's moving so much, I try to let it go in the same spot, but it's moving a lot and it's moving away from my first baseman. I’m releasing it at a point where it should just go in and tag, but it's moving a lot for him.”
Tanner Rainey, who was originally unavailable to pitch but was asked to take the mound for the third time in the series, then allowed an RBI triple to Starlin Castro.
Martinez took exception to two plate appearances in the inning: the hit-by-pitch and free pass. Entering Sunday, the Nats had the ninth-highest walks-per-nine-innings rate in the Majors.
“When you start doing that, it's tough,” Martinez said. “You start falling behind, it's tough. These guys [have] got to come in and throw strikes and just get outs. The biggest thing is get outs. You give up a run, you give up a run, but we've got to get outs. We've got to get outs late in the game.”
Eight home contests remain for the Nationals over the season’s final week against the Phillies and Tribe, with October baseball on the line for all three clubs. The earliest the Nats can clinch a postseason berth is on Tuesday, when they play a doubleheader against the NL East rival Phillies.
While the Marlins turned to nine relievers thanks to September roster expansion over the course of the weekend, the Nats relied on six guys -- but didn’t use Sean Doolittle, whom Martinez said would be available in high-leverage situations.
“There's no turning back now,” Strickland said. “This is it. This is critical. Every game's critical. It's a tough loss for sure. As a reliever mindset, in general, you have to forget and figure out what to get better on and move forward and be ready again tomorrow. There's no more off-days, and we've got to be ready to go.”