“Circle of Life” blasted over the speakers at Nationals Park while Caleb Smith trudged back to the dugout Sunday after another Miami Marlins road meltdown in the sixth inning. The crowd of 29,345 was prompted to hold up their children just like Rafiki does with Simba in the opening of “The Lion King” and the big screen eventually showed the Washington Nationals’ dugout, where Victor Robles was holding up Adam Eaton like the outfielder was a lion cub. The crowd went wild.
The Nationals spent August celebrating win after win as they chase the Atlanta Braves in the National League East and try to put a stranglehold on their lead in the Wild Card race. While Washington was jubilant on the first day of September, the Marlins just tried to get through another day on the way to an end of a mostly miserable season. They lost again Sunday, this time 9-3 for a franchise-record 15th straight time on the road. They plummeted even closer to the pace for the worst record in franchise history, and inched another step toward the mathematical elimination and the moment a rebuilding season officially becomes a lost one.
It can officially happen as early as Monday if the Chicago Cubs can beat the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday and the Seattle Mariners on Monday. It will, of course, be just a formality for a team which has been far from contention since the moment the 2019 season began in March and just suffered through a historically bad month.
“I’ve been watching on TV and I think the effort is there. Everybody is trying to do their thing,” said infielder Miguel Rojas, who came off the injured list Sunday. “You’ve got to tip the cap to them, too, but we’ve got to start playing better baseball.”
Miami played 14 games away from Marlins Park in August and lost all 14. It finished the month worse than .500 at home, too, and moved within range of the worst record in club history. With its loss Sunday, Miami (48-88) is now on pace for about 57 wins. The franchise record for futility is 54 wins set by the 1998 Florida Marlins.
Miami’s gruesome August bled into September on Sunday. The Marlins, starting three position players in their 30s and only one younger than 25, sputtered for most of six innings against Patrick Corbin. They struck out eight times against the starting pitcher and nine times total. In 27 innings of a three-game sweep at the hands of the Nationals (77-58) in Washington, Miami struck out 36 times. The Marlins failed to score in 17 of their final 18 innings.
The fleeting moments of joy for Miami came in quick succession in the fifth inning. Starlin Castro, fresh off a torrential August, led off the frame with a solo home run, and corner infielder Martin Prado followed him with an infield single and outfielder Lewis Brinson with a walk. Outfielder Austin Dean drove in Prado with a double, then catcher Bryan Holaday brought home Brinson with a sacrifice fly. A 2-0 deficit quickly flipped into a 3-2, but it only lasted a moment.
“We had the game right there,” Rojas said.
All series, the Marlins have tried mostly in vain to get out Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto. Manager Don Mattingly spent the weekend praising the All-Star tandem in the heart of the Nationals’ order and the home crowd spent most of Sunday breaking into chants of “M-V-P” for its superstar third baseman.
As soon as Miami threatened to avoid a sweep, Rendon rescued Washington. Trea Turner reached with an infield single against Smith (8-9) and, with the tying run on base, Rendon put the Nationals ahead, belting a 400-foot home run off the starting pitcher to give Washington a 4-3 lead.
“I thought I threw the ball well for the most part,” Smith said. “I shouldn’t have given up that many runs, I shouldn’t have given up that many hits. Just one of those days.”
Even Smith, the Marlins’ de facto ace all season, couldn’t end Miami’s misery. Smith only got one out in the sixth inning before he exited following back-to-back homers by first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and catcher Yan Gomes. The left-handed pitcher gave up seven runs — six earned — on seven hits, including three home runs. His ERA climbed up to 4.30, the highest it has been at the end of any game this season.
Aside from the fifth, the Marlins couldn’t manage anything against Corbin (11-6) or the Nationals. The starting pitcher had a perfect game until Castro’s homer and regrouped for the sixth inning, when he worked around a pair of walks to finish another winning effort. All three of Miami’s hits against the left-handed pitcher came in the fifth and so did one of its three walks.
“Early on it seemed like we didn’t see the slider at all,” Mattingly said. “It was disappearing on us.”
The Marlins might not have an official checklist for the month of September, but there is a list off things they’d like to see in the final month of a lost season. They’d like to see starting pitcher Jose Urena work in some save situations. They want to rookies like Harold Ramirez and Isan Diaz head into their sophomore campaigns with some positive progress. They really want to see Brinson maybe just get a couple hits here and there.
They also want to win some games, although it clearly isn’t quite a priority right now after the way they sold off parts in the last two offseasons and up through the trade deadline. Trading away a promising rookie starting pitcher like Zac Gallen for an even better prospect even further off from contributing is waving a white flag is flying high enough for all of MLB to see.
This is Miami’s own circle of life. Back in 1998, the Marlins were defending World Series champions and sold off most of their roster. They closed their own championship window and started looking ahead to the next one, which eventually came in 2003.
Miami is headed toward a similar finish in 2019 and, in an ideal world, the Marlins will look something like Washington in a few years. This September, though, it feels a lifetime away.
“I’ve said it a couple different times during the course of the year: Certain teams let you know where you’re at and these guys are one of those teams,” Mattingly said. “Hopefully we’re gaining information.”