Nationals look to get back on track against Fernandez, Marlins

MIAMI -- Manager Don Mattingly painted a grim picture.

If his Miami Marlins team were a patient in a hospital, they would be on "life support," Mattingly said.

It's a sad image for a team that had high hopes earlier this summer.

The Marlins trail the New York Mets, San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals in the NL wild-card chase. Only two of those three teams listed above can make the playoffs the way the race looks right now.

"All we can do," Mattingly said, "is try to win every day and force the other teams to have to win games."

That quest begins anew on Tuesday night, when ace right-hander Jose Fernandez takes the mound against the Washington Nationals.

Fernandez, an All-Star this year for the second time in his brief career, is 15-8 with a 2.99 ERA. But he is even better at home, going 28-2 with a 1.53 ERA at Marlins Park since breaking into the majors.

There should be a great pitching matchup on Tuesday as Washington will send right-hander Tanner Roark to the mound. Roark is also 15-8, and he has a 2.75 ERA.

"Tanner has been very valuable to us," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "It is tough to even imagine our team without his contribution."

Marlins fans should enjoy Fernandez's contributions right now because this could be the last week of his season.

Fernandez, who has pitched 174 1/3 innings this season, will likely pitch just two more games this year -- Tuesday against the Nationals and Sunday against the Atlanta Braves.

The Marlins don't want to extend him too much past 180 innings in his first full year after elbow surgery.

Meanwhile, the Nationals, who have lost three games in a row, are looking to get back in the win column. There is no need for Nationals fans to panic -- their team is eight games ahead of the New York Mets in the NL East, after all.

Still, Baker wants his team entering the playoffs riding a wave of momentum instead of a string of losses.

The Nationals got pitcher Joe Ross back from the disabled list on Sunday. Another member of the rotation, Stephen Strasburg, has begun to toss the ball lightly.

Getting Strasburg back in time for the playoffs would be huge.

The Nationals want to get their offense untracked. Reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper has just one hit in his past 18 at-bats and is hitting just .242.

No Strasburg and an ice-cold Harper -- that's not how the Nationals drew this thing up when considering their two biggest stars.

In addition, while rookie Trea Turner has been a revelation offensively -- he is hitting .350 and has been igniting the offense as their leadoff man -- his defense has been shaky. He misplayed two fly balls on Monday that cost the Nationals three runs in a 4-3 loss to the Marlins.

So yes, it's safe to say the Nationals are a playoff team. But will they be hot once they get there?

That's what the next couple of weeks will determine, and -- from Washington's perspective -- it would be great to beat Fernandez on Tuesday at Marlins Park where he has been a god-like figure.