Nationals-Marlins Preview

The Washington Nationals were sitting atop the NL East in late June and prize offseason acquisition Max Scherzer was riding a wave of electrifying starts.

Eleven weeks later and the Nationals are fading fast in the division, while Scherzer has evened his record with a surprising slump.

Washington looks to avoid falling back to .500 and getting swept in a second straight series Sunday against the Miami Marlins.

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On June 26, Scherzer (11-11, 3.03 ERA) earned the final victory of a three-start win streak that featured a one-hitter and a no-hitter, improving to 9-5 with a 1.79 ERA and helping the Nationals (71-70) maintain a 3 1/2-game lead over the New York Mets.

To say it's been all downhill since would be an understatement. While Washington has plummeted to a 9 1/2-game deficit behind the Mets in the East with a 30-37 stretch, Scherzer has gone 2-6 with a 4.74 ERA in 13 starts since that June 26 win at Philadelphia.

The Nationals appeared to end their funk with an 11-4 surge capped by a four-game sweep of Atlanta from Sept. 3-6, but they were swept by New York in a crucial three-game series before heading to Miami.

Scherzer went six innings against the Mets on Monday but allowed a season high-tying three homers and five earned runs in an 8-5 loss. It was the second straight time Washington provided him at least five runs of support and lost after he'd previously gone 5-0 in that situation.

"I'm leaving the ball thigh-high instead of getting it down at the knees," Scherzer said after the Mets rallied with five unanswered runs. "That's going to keep me up late tonight, figuring out how I should do that. I keep giving up home runs and that's something I have to correct. I'm just disappointed I wasn't able to hold that lead."

Scherzer hasn't been at his best against the Marlins (61-81) this year, but the strongest of his three starts against them came in Miami, where he gave up three hits over seven innings in a 1-0 victory July 30. The right-hander's other two outings against the Marlins have yielded a 1-1 record and nine earned runs allowed over 14 innings.

Washington also learned Saturday that reliever Drew Storen will likely miss the rest of the season after breaking his thumb slamming the lock box in his locker in frustration after giving up the go-ahead homer to New York's Yoenis Cespedes in Wednesday's loss.

"It's only human nature to say, 'This wasn't our year,'" manager Matt Williams said. "But you have to fight against that, because at any time you're playing for pride's sake."

The Marlins are 20 back in the standings but seem to be enjoying the role of spoiler against the Nationals. Washington is 33-26 against the NL East but just 6-8 versus Miami.

Brad Hand (4-5, 5.20) will try to help close out the sweep after losing his last two starts, including a rough outing in the nation's capital Aug. 30.

Hand worked 4 2-3 innings that day and allowed five earned runs in a 7-4 loss to Washington before New York lit the left-hander up for three homers and seven runs in 1 2-3 innings of a 7-0 home loss last Saturday.

"I was leaving the ball up and everything was flat," Hand said. "They were sitting on the heater and they got to it."

Hand will try to give Miami a second straight solid performance after Jose Fernandez returned from the disabled list Saturday and became only the third pitcher since 1914 to win his first 16 career decisions at home with a 2-0 victory.