MIAMI — The Washington Nationals put themselves in a position Wednesday night that has become all too familiar during the early stages of this season. Their starter put them in an early hole, and the offense was left to cover up the mess.
This time it was rookie Tanner Roark who yielded three fourth-inning runs, leaving the Nationals the unenviable task of having rally against Jose Fernandez, one of the league’s top young pitchers. Fortunately for the Nationals, Jayson Werth and rookie pinch-hitter Zach Walters delivered late in a 6-3 win over the Miami Marlins.
The drama came in the eighth, with the game even at 3. Manager Matt Williams sent the switch-hitting Walters to bat for relief pitcher Drew Storen. Left-handed reliever Mike Dunn hung a slider to Walters, who hit 29 home runs at Class AAA Syracuse last season, the powerful 6-foot-2 infielder got hold of it to give the Nationals a one-run lead.
Ian Desmond singled in a pair of insurance runs later in the inning, giving Rafael Soriano plenty of room to close out the win.
Against Fernandez, the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year, Werth drilled a slicing, opposite-field home run that tied the score in the sixth inning.
The Nationals won without Bryce Harper, who was scratched shortly before first pitch with tightness in his left quadriceps.
After struggling to do so last season, the Nationals have now come back to win five times in 15 games. And Roark settled down after his rocky to fourth to provide 61/ 3 innings, keeping the Nationals in the game.
The Nationals (9-6) have outscored opponents 38-14 from the seventh inning on.
As imressive as the offense has been, the Nationals were desperate for a strong performance from a starting pitcher. Nats starters entered with a 5.06 ERA through 14 games, the fifth worst mark in baseball. Starters were averaging about 51/ 3 innings per start, putting pressure on the bullpen.
The game began as a pitcher’s duel. The first three innings had a combined four baserunners. Fernandez moved through the Nationals lineup with overpowering stuff. In the fourth inning, he struck out the side ofAnthony Rendon, Werth and Adam LaRoche, making each look uncomfortable in the process.
Roark’s struggles came in the bottom of that inning when he allowed a leadoff single to Garrett Jones and then another single to Casey McGehee. Roark got Jarrod Saltalamacchia to fly out, but left a fastball over the plate to Derek Dietrich, who swatted it into the seats in right-center field for a 3-0 lead.
The Nationals rallied in the sixth. Jose Lobaton led off with a double and Roark reached when he dropped down a sacrifice bunt and Saltalamacchia threw errantly to third in a bid to get Lobaton. Fernandez was poised to wriggle out of the jam after he struck out Nate McLouth and Rendon, but he made a mistake to Werth and was made to pay.
Ahead in the count 0-1, Fernandez fired a 96-mph fastball that caught too much of the plate. Werth uncorked his compact, powerful swing and sent the ball deep to right-center. Although a fan accidentally sent the ball back onto the field in a failed effort to snag the home run, umpires — and replay — determined the blast was, in fact, a home run.
Roark got the Nationals into the seventh inning, allowing Williams to deploy his relievers as he prefers, starting with Drew Storen, who worked out of a one-on, one-out jam thanks to a double play that set the stage for the eighth-inning drama.