NEW YORK - They played the kids, and some of them provided some uplifting moments. But the Nationals lost tonight’s series opener to the Mets, 7-6, not because of anything their rookies did but because of what two struggling veteran pitchers did.
Starter Edwin Jackson continued his September tailspin, giving up six runs in 4 2/3 innings - five of those runs coming in the bottom of the fifth alone - to turn a big lead into a tie game. Joe Blanton then surrendered the go-ahead run in the bottom of the sixth, leaving the Nationals in a hole they could not escape.
As such, they lost their second straight game and fell to 92-61. In order to set a new franchise record for wins in a season - a stated goal of manager Dusty Baker - they’ll need to go 7-2 the rest of the way. In order to get to an even 100 wins, they’ll need to go 8-1.
The Nationals seemed to be headed in the right direction tonight, even with Baker fielding a lineup consisting of no projected postseason regulars (they all got the day off after a late-night flight from Atlanta). Rookie outfielder Victor Robles led a group of youngsters who opened up a 6-1 lead in the fifth.
But the pitching implosions by Jackson and Blanton turned this game’s storyline around. And a last-ditch effort in the ninth fell short.
Despite putting a man on third with one out, the Nationals couldn’t push home the tying run. Mets manager Terry Collins pulled closer AJ Ramos after three batters, summoning lefty Josh Smoker to face Adam Lind. Smoker got Lind to fly out to shallow left field, not deep enough to score Wilmer Difo from third. Jeurys Familia then struck out Robles to end it.
“We still had a lot of chances to win that ballgame,” Baker said. “We had bases loaded (in the second) and we had a runner on third in the ninth. We’re going to have to see what these guys can do.”
There were risks involved in fielding a lineup that included three rookies (Robles, Rafael Bautista, Adrian Sanchez) and two other youngsters (Difo, Pedro Severino), but there were benefits as well. Most notably, the kind of energy that only comes from youth. And some of that was on display during tonight’s game.
It was a big hit by a seasoned veteran that got the Nationals on the board first, though. Lind’s three-run homer to right in the top of the third was merely the latest big blast by the 34-year-old, who now has 13 homers and 55 RBIs in only 284 plate appearances this season.
The youth stepped up and delivered to extend the Nats’ lead two innings later. After Howie Kendrick doubled to right-center to bring home a run, Robles provided the latest in a string of electric moments despite precious little playing time. The 20-year-old launched a drive off the wall in left-center, then scampered around the bases for a two-run triple. It officially was the rookie’s second three-bagger in 11 career at-bats, but he essentially has three because he was called out on another play in which he beat the throw to third but overslid the bag.
“I feel great,” Robles, who is 4-for-13 with three extra-base hits, four RBIs and a .400 on-base percentage, said via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I feel fine, relaxed. I feel like this is the league I’ve been playing at all year.”
Presented a 6-1 lead, Jackson appeared to be in an advantageous position. The veteran right-hander then promptly gave up five runs in the bottom of the fifth to leave this game tied in his latest shaky performance.
Jackson had already served up a solo homer to Travis d’Arnaud in the top of the second. He made it to the fifth without suffering any more damage but then felt apart. Four singles got things rolling downhill. Then d’Arnaud’s three-run blast to left finished the job.
It was the ninth homer Jackson has allowed in his last 15 innings; collectively that has turned a feel-good story of the summer into an all-too-familiar tale, perhaps spoiling whatever chance the popular righty had of making the postseason roster as a long reliever.
“I think at the end of the day, you just have to keep believing,” said Jackson, who now has a 5.26 ERA in 12 starts. “It’s not an easy game. Nobody ever said it would be easy. When things aren’t going your way, you can’t fold. You can’t lose confidence. You can’t give in. You just have to keep fighting and know things will turn around.”
Blanton was entrusted with a tie game in the sixth but then gave up doubles to both Juan Lagares and Nori Aoki, giving the Mets the lead.
Shawn Kelley came out of the bullpen for the eighth but had to depart after 17 pitches when his lower arm felt numb and his hand became swollen. Kelley said it was a similar sensation to what he felt during Game 5 of last year’s National League Division Series - that proved not to be a significant injury - but he’ll be examined by a doctor Saturday and hopefully have a clearer idea what exactly is going on.
“I’ve kind of always dealt with it,” said Kelley, a two-time recipient of Tommy John surgery. “I’ve just managed it. I’ve had tingling, I’ve had irritation. I’ve just managed it. This time, it just didn’t seem as manageable out there.”