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Miami Marlins off to sluggish second half, fall to Nationals

Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez were deep in conversation near the edge of the infield grass when Washington Nationals rookie Bryce Harper caught the two chit-chatters by surprise. Seeing that no one was paying attention, Harper — who was standing on second — took off for third and had it stolen before anyone on the napping Marlins could react.

“Everybody’s head was down, and he took advantage of that,” said manager Ozzie Guillen.

It was the first inning of the first game in what is an important series for the Marlins against the first-place Nationals, and while Harper did not end up coming home to score after his heads-up play, it served as a microcosm of how this season is going for the two division rivals.

The alert Nationals on Friday raced out of the gate to start the second half with a 5-1 victory while the Marlins were churned further behind in their wake. The loss put the Marlins a season-high 10 games behind the Nationals in the N.L. East standings.

“It seemed [Friday night] like we took another All-Star break day,” Guillen said.

Not even Josh Johnson, who had never lost to the Nationals, could keep his streak going. Johnson was done in the sixth after giving up three runs on 11 hits, including a Ryan Zimmerman homer that landed in the “waves” of the home run sculpture in left-center. The result was Johnson’s first defeat to the Nats after eight consecutive winning decisions.

“Pretty bad,’’ Johnson said of his outing. “Not the way you want to start the second half.”

Given the mounting distance between the two teams in the standings, the Marlins can ill afford to drop the four-game series with Washington by losing either three — or, shudder, all four games. But now they must face All-Star hurlers Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg over the coming two days, further dimming their weekend prospects.

“We all know it’s a big series for us,” Guillen said. “Everybody knows. The players should know. For us, it’s a huge series.”

The Nationals jumped out to a quick lead Friday and never looked back.

Adam LaRoche opened the second with a double and scored on Ian Desmond’s single. The lead expanded to 3-0 in the third on Zimmerman’s ninth home run, and the Nationals made it 5-0 in the sixth when Jesus Flores ended Johnson’s night with a two-run single.

Once again, the Marlins’ lineup — rejiggered to account for the return of Emilio Bonifacio from the disabled list — was largely lifeless against Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann. Ramirez, dropped to the fifth spot in the order for the first time in his career, singled to lead off the second but gambled unwisely in trying to stretch it into a double and was thrown out easily at second.

“Today we were flat,” Guillen said. “When you don’t score any runs, you’re going to look flat.”

Zimmermann, who had gone 0-3 in six career starts against the Marlins, held them without a hit from the second to the sixth innings. The Marlins didn’t get on the board until the seventh, after Zimmermann was gone, on John Buck’s RBI single off reliever Henry Rodriguez.

Then again, the Marlins’ best hitter and only All-Star selection, slugger Giancarlo Stanton, wasn’t in the lineup Friday and won’t be for the next four to six weeks after undergoing knee surgery on Monday. Carlos Lee appeared for the first time as a Marlin at Marlins Park after being obtained in a trade with Houston just before the All-Star break and went 2 for 4 with a pair of singles and a stolen base.

But it was an otherwise quiet night for the Marlins before an announced crowd of 30,911. In taking the loss, Johnson’s record fell to 5-6 while his ERA climbed to 4.28. Over his past two starts, Johnson has given up 10 runs on 17 hits in 10 1/3 total innings.

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