WASHINGTON -- For the second consecutive start, Marlins ace Jose Fernandez was nearly untouchable. Fernandez struck out 11 Nationals hitters in Sunday's 5-1 win.
Fernandez matched his total from last Monday's outing against the Brewers, while allowing only four hits and one run in seven innings. He walked three. Marlins manager Don Mattingly called it Fernandez's best start of the season.
"To me, this was the easiest and smoothest," Mattingly said. "No real true troubles."
Only once did Fernandez let two runners reach base in the same inning, when he walked two batters in the fifth before inducing Bryce Harper into a lineout to end the threat.
Fernandez, who entered the day leading the Major Leagues in strikeout rate and strikeouts per nine innings, seemed to get stronger as the afternoon wore on. He struck out the side in both the sixth and seventh innings, even as his pitch count climbed north of 100.
"I think that's been the whole season," Fernandez said. "The whole season, as the game progresses, I've been feeling better and better.
After relying on his fastball early in the game, Fernandez began throwing more curveballs in the later innings, particularly deeper in counts. With a runner on second base and no one out in the seventh, he struck out Stephen Drew on a curve, threw two straight breaking pitches to Michael Taylor before fanning him on a heater, then finished Ben Revere on the fourth curveball of his at-bat.
Fernandez also helped his cause at the plate, where he dropped down two sacrifice bunts and laced a two-run single to center field in the sixth. That RBI hit came after the Nationals intentionally walked Adeiny Hechavarria to get to Fernandez, a career .196 hitter entering that at-bat.
"That's a really good feeling," Fernandez said. "Anything I can do to help my team to win and to give them a chance to win every time that I'm on the mound."
After a difficult start to the season, Fernandez (5-2) seems to have hit his stride in his last two starts. Both times he has lasted seven innings and has struck out 11 opposing hitters.
Sunday was also notable for Fernandez's pitch count. The former Tommy John surgery patient threw a career-high 117 pitches on the day and has now reached at least 110 in two straight outings, after not going above 106 in his first six appearances.
"I feel good," Fernandez said. "My teammates expect me to do my job and to go out there and battle, fight. That's what I'm going to do."
Alex Putterman is a reporter for MLB.com based in Washington. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.