NEW YORK | Where did the Nationals' 8-2 loss to the New York Mets on Friday night go wrong? Was it with Garrett Mock, who needed 84 pitches to get through 3 1/3 innings and walked half as many batters as he retired? Was it with a group of relievers that gave up six runs in 4 2/3 innings? Or did none of it matter because of an offense that generated just two runs and four hits against a pitcher the Nationals beat twice last year?
This loss to the Mets, which dropped the Nationals to 1-3 and put them down a game in one of their best chances to win a series this month, broke down along an easily definable fault line; Mock's early exit put the Nationals in a situation where they had to use mop-up relievers for the third time in four games, and Washington's offense was unable to put the same stress on the Mets' bullpen. Some interesting stuff from all facets of that, so I'm going to write something a little less traditional tonight.
Instead, we'll look at all three areas and see what went wrong:
The pitcher on whom the Nationals risked the final spot in their rotation hasn't thrown well in his last three outings, dating back to the final weeks of spring training. The reason Mock keeps getting chances, as pitching coach Steve McCatty said again after the game, is that he's got better stuff than almost anyone in the organization other than Stephen Strasburg. That was never easier to see than the third inning; Mock got two strikeouts on nasty, big-breaking curveballs, the second of which started on the inner half of the plate to Jason Bay and broke across the strike zone too late for Bay to do anything with it. But those strikeouts were encased in two of Mock's five walks. He also gave up four hits, including two solo homers to left against a stiff left-to-right wind that Mock said also made it difficult for him to command his pitches.
"I'm not going to sit there and say that it's the baseball's fault, but I mean, I just couldn't really get a grip on it," Mock said. "I did everything I could, from trying to keep my hands moist, licking my fingers, doing everything I could to get some type of tack on the ball. I was just uncomfortable."
Scott Olsen, who lost the final spot in the rotation to Mock, didn't do anything at Triple-A Syracuse on Friday to build a strong case - he allowed four runs on eight hits in 6 1/3 innings. But listening to McCatty after the game, it sounded like Mock will only get so long to figure things out in the majors.
"Whatever I say sounds like it's bad, and I'm not knocking him, but you have to find a way to get through situations," McCatty said. "He said, 'My hands are dry.' I said, 'Hey, you've got to find a way.' It seems to me (Miguel) Batista did fine. (Mike) Pelfrey, he did fine. I don't like hearing stuff like that because it makes it sound like an excuse. Been there, done that, you find a way to get through it. You're in the big leagues. You've got to find a way. Everything's not going to be perfect. It's not going to be 85 degrees every day, and the wind's blowing in. You find a way to deal with situations."
Forty-four of Mock's 84 pitches were strikes, which simply isn't enough for the Nationals. McCatty said it's been a "constant struggle" to get Mock to throw more strikes; he's done it well in the minors, but there's a disconnect between there and the big leagues.
"You can't do that. You can't throw 80 pitches in four innings," McCatty said. "I know he's not trying to. But when you get past the point of whether it's too fine, the cold, slick balls or wind, that's when you become successful."
One National League scout said this spring that Mock continues to get chances because he's still the guy that Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo first drafted in Arizona and vouched for in a trade when he became Washington's assistant general manager. Rizzo still has a strong belief in what Mock can be; he sees him the way a long-time scout does, the way he projects, his raw potential. It's why the scout believed all along that Mock would win the final job over Olsen. But with Stephen Strasburg possibly mere weeks from the majors, Mock only has so long to produce results.
"Mentally, he's being aggressive. He's firing. He's challenging hitters," manager Jim Riggleman said. "But he's just not throwing quality strikes. ... I don't think it's a matter of a lack of aggression on his part. It's just lack of execution."
The middle relievers
Let's get this out of the way first: Any team that has to use its long relievers three times in four games has a problem that doesn't start with the middle relievers. It starts at the start, with the pitcher who wasn't able to go deep enough into the game to get the ball to his team's best relievers - the late-inning pitchers charged with sealing a win, not keeping a deficit manageable. That said, the Nationals' relievers have walked 17 batters in four games, 14 of them unintentionally. And Jason Bergmann, Jesse English and Tyler Walker combined to give up five runs on Friday night.
"Any time you're playing a ballgame, you want to get into the other team's middle relief," Riggleman said. "That's what they're doing to us."
Miguel Batista was the one bright spot, allowing one run in 2 2/3 innings. But Bergmann, English and Walker are all candidates to be sent to the minors when the Nationals need to make room for Livan Hernandez on Sunday, and none of them helped their case on Friday night.
"There was no method to it, or no pattern to it," Riggleman said. "Today, they hit the fastball, they hit the breaking ball, they hit the changeup. ... We just haven't executed pitches."
Twice last year, the Nationals beat Pelfrey. This spring, they hit four (albeit wind-aided) homers off him in a spring game. That's the same number of hits they had off him on Friday.
The Nationals have scored just 13 runs in four games, seven in three losses. Three of their four hits on Friday came from Ivan Rodriguez (the No. 7 hitter) and Ian Desmond (the No. 8 hitter).
"As we sit here and focus on that we didn't pitch good enough, we've got to score more than that, too," Riggleman said. "I love this ballclub. I like the way they compete. They're irritated as hell right now that they're not scoring runs. But that being said, I'm like they are. I'd like to see us execute better and perform better."
OK, enough carping for one night. Time to bring back our feature from spring training that a few of you have been asking about: the Golden Geese. We'll call it good on the Goose Eggs for the night.
Ivan Rodriguez: He went 2-for-4 with a run, and is hitting .462 in the first four games. Rodriguez has been a welcome source of offense for a team that's struggling in the heart of the order right now.
Miguel Batista: The right-hander allowed one of the Mets' four home runs, but that was the only run he gave up in 2 2/3 innings. Otherwise, Batista was solid in long relief, keeping the game close until the Nationals' last three relievers came in.
Ian Desmond's bat: We're splitting this one up, because there were a couple base hits that could have been charged as errors to Desmond, but he stung a second-inning, two-RBI triple to give Washington a 2-0 lead and drew a walk in the second inning. You're seeing Desmond's potential at the plate early.
Time to shut it down for the night. I've got to be back here in 10 hours. But you can get a recap of the live thread here, and we'll do it again for tomorrow's 1:10 start (John Lannan vs. Oliver Perez). Talk to you then!