As much as has gone wrong for the Washington Nationals, there are still few lineups more fearsome for opposing pitchers to navigate through in all of MLB. Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon have played at MVP levels at varying points throughout their career. Juan Soto and Victor Robles are among the most talented young outfielders in the Majors. Adam Eaton and Howie Kendrick are two more the more reliable contact hitters in the National League. A meeting with the Nationals on Sunday in Washington set up to be one of Caleb Smith’s toughest tests yet in the midst of the starting pitcher’s breakthrough season for the Miami Marlins.
“I think that lineup’s a test all the time,” manager Don Mattingly said. “They’ve got a really good lineup. For me, I think it’s one of the best we’ve faced, so it’s going to be a test.”
Smith felt the brunt of force from the Nationals’ lineup early. Washington tagged him for one run in the second inning, then unloaded for four more in the third to beat the Marlins, 9-6, and deal Miami a third straight loss following its season-long six-game winning streak.
Smith had issues with the front of the Nationals’ order, but struggled even as he got further down through the deep lineup. Rendon reached base both times he faced Smith. Eaton and Soto each got on once. The biggest blows, however, came from Kendrick, who homered and doubled in his two at-bats against the left-handed pitcher, and even second baseman Brian Dozier, who drove in two runs with a double in his second at-bat. For the second straight day, the Marlins (16-34) trailed 5-0 by the midpoint of the game to leave the crowd of 26,365 at ease.
“It looked like his stuff was back up again today,” Mattingly said. “He just missed some spots and a team like they have over there, they’re going to make you pay.”
It all made for easily Smith’s worst outing of the season. The lefty lasted only three innings and gave up five runs to Washington (22-31) on five hits with two walks. He only struck out one batter. Nearly every one of those marks set a new season-worst for the starter.
Smith (3-2) entered Sunday as one of the biggest surprises in the Majors. His 2.38 ERA was third best in the NL. His WHIP and strikeouts per nine innings both placed him in the top five, and the advanced metrics suggested it was no fluke. Smith entered Sunday with the Major Leagues’ 10th best fielding independent pitching, which adjusts ERA to account for only factors within a pitcher’s control.
Most of the lineups he faced in the last month couldn’t stack up to the Nationals’, though. Before Sunday, Smith didn’t have a single outing in which he went fewer than five innings, he hadn’t allowed more than three earned runs in any start and he hadn’t struck out fewer than seven in any game. The five hits matched the most against Smith in any game so far this season and the pitcher went at least six innings each of the previous two times it happened.
Take his most recent start, for example. Smith was less than perfect against the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday and he still held the young team to two runs in five innings because he got 17 swinging strikes. Washington doesn’t chase like the Tigers, though. Smith only got four swinging strikes and the Nationals waited on the pitcher’s mistakes.
“They force you into the strike zone. They don’t chase,” Mattingly said. “These guys force you to throw in the strike zone for the most part, so you’ve got to be able to make quality pitches.”
Washington knocked Smith from the game with a monster fourth inning. Already leading 1-0 on a solo homer by Kendrick in the second, the Nationals started their rally with two outs and no one on base. Eaton started with a double to right and Smith intentionally walked Rendon to set up a lefty-lefty matchup with Soto.
It didn’t work. The 20-year-old star walked to load the bases and Kendrick came through with another clutch hit, driving in two with a single to left. After Smith hit Robles with a pitch, Dozier drove in two more runs with a double off the wall in right-center.
“I didn’t think I had command of any of my pitches, really,” Smith said. “My fastball, I left over the middle. I wasn’t able to throw my secondary pitches for strikes when I needed to. They capitalized on it.”
Just half an inning earlier, the Marlins missed their best chance against Erick Fedde. The pitcher snuffed out Miami’s only meaningful threat in the third to go five shutout innings.
Outfielder Curtis Granderson drew a two-out walk, fellow outfielder Harold Ramirez moved Granderson to third with a double and Fedde (1-0) intentionally walked slugging third baseman Brian Anderson to load the bases. Utility man Neil Walker struck out and the Marlins’ best early chance was gone. Half an inning later, so was their chance at winning.
“Things kind of build one way or the other,” Mattingly said. “He’s been rolling pretty good and he’s going to have some bumps in the road, but the type of competitor that Caleb is, he’s going to bounce back.”