MIAMI -- They entered this futuristic, psychedelic ballpark on Monday flying high as a kite, winners in five of the first six games of this key road trip and holding a season-high 2 12-game lead in the NL East.
By the time they packed their bags Wednesday night to head home, the Nationals were stinging from a sweep at hands of their longtime nemeses, their stranglehold on baseball's toughest division down to a mere 12-game following a 5-3 loss to the resurgent Marlins.
"It's definitely tough," left-hander Ross Detwiler said. "We hit a hot team at the wrong time."
Did they ever. A Miami club that appeared on the verge of self-inflicted implosion not long ago just completed the most-successful month in franchise history, going 21-8 in May. They've got one of the most-feared hitters in the game today in Giancarlo Cruz-Michael Stanton and a deep rotation that held the Nationals to six earned runs in this series.
And, unlike everyone else in the division, they've managed to avoid crushing injuries.
Because of that, the Nationals head home a bit dazed, having failed to capitalize on their dominant performances in Philadelphia and Atlanta, ultimately finishing this trip with a 5-4 record.
"Unfortunately, it happens," second baseman Danny Espinosa said. "Overall, I think if you look at the road trip, we did alright. It's tough to play on the road, a new stadium. It doesn't feel good to get swept, but if you look at the overall picture, we did play well on the road."
The Nationals weren't whitewashed by the Marlins; they lost each of these three games by two runs. Which meant they were done in by a handful of key mistakes each night.
On Wednesday, most of those mistakes came out of the right hand of Chien-Ming Wang, who in his first start of the season battled some rare command issues and wound up unable to record even one out in the fifth inning.
Wang faced 22 batters and allowed 12 of them to reach safely via seven hits, three walks, a hit batter and a fielder's choice.
"I'm kind of disappointed in myself today for the performance," the Taiwanese hurler said through interpreter John Hsu.
Wang actually displayed some of the best "stuff" he's shown in years, dialing his sinker up to 94 mph and mixing in some sharp breaking balls. But when he needed to find the strike zone, he couldn't, particularly after being handed a 3-1 lead in the fourth via back-to-back RBI hits from Espinosa and Roger Bernadina.
Wang immediately walked the first two Miami batters he faced in the bottom of the inning, Logan Morrison and Bryan Petersen, on nine total pitches. Both runners wound up coming around to score.
"I thought he was a little rusty," manager Davey Johnson said. "I think he'll be better next time out."
There will be a next time for Wang, Johnson insisted, though each time the veteran takes the mound, it feels like he's auditioning to retain the final spot in the Nationals' rotation over Detwiler (who was bumped to the bullpen this week).
"He's in the rotation," Johnson said. "He's a replacing a guy that threw the ball pretty good for me. But I like the upside of Chien-Ming, and we'll just play it by ear as it goes."
Detwiler, who labored through his last three starts, performed well in relief of Wang on Wednesday, allowing one inherited runner to score in the fifth before facing the minimum in the sixth.
Knowing he would only be used for at most a couple of innings, the left-hander was able to cut loose from the moment he entered, and it showed: He struck out the first batter he faced, Morrison, on a 95 mph fastball.
"I don't have to hold anything back," Detwiler said of pitching in relief. "That's one thing: When you're kind of scuffling, you're trying to think too much. Coming out of the 'pen, it's just go out there and get 'em."
Detwiler managed to keep this a one-run game into the seventh, but that's when the Nationals were yet again victimized by the fearsome Stanton. The 22-year-old slugger already homered in Monday's series opener, then contributed a key RBI single on Tuesday.
This time, he dug in against right-hander Ryan Perry and hammered a hanging slider 413 feet to left field for his 12th home run of the month and his 11th home run in 34 career games against the Nationals.
You can't make a mistake on a hitter that's big and strong like him," Johnson said. "Boy, Perry threw a little back-up slider and he straightened it out. I like our chances if we could stay within one run but every time, we'd give up a home run to one of their big guys. One run is easier to come back from than two."
Indeed, the Nationals were unable to erase the two-run deficit in any of these three games. They did put the tying run on base in the ninth inning Wednesday, but Miami closer Heath Bell struck out pinch-hitter Rick Ankiel looking to end the game and complete the series sweep at Marlins Park.
Thus concluded an eventful road trip that featured some distinct high points but also another run of injuries. Reliever Ryan Mattheus needed foot surgery. Pinch-hitter Chad Tracy needed groin surgery. Catcher Jesus Flores needed to rest his hamstring. And then reliever Henry Rodriguez slammed a finger on his throwing hand in a bathroom door, knocking him out of commission for a day.
The Nationals could feel sorry for themselves at the end of all that. On the other hand, they can take solace in knowing they're still eight games over .500, with cleanup hitter Michael Morse perhaps ready to make his season debut Friday night against the Braves.
"We're still in first place," Detwiler said. "We have to go out there Friday and say: 'We're still in first place. We're still the team to beat.'"