The last time the Nationals saw Mets starter Jonathon Niese, they stamped out six runs, drew five walks and knocked the left-hander out of the game in 4 1/3 innings. It was in an 8-6 loss to the Mets on May 11, but that game was the one hiccup in a series that suggested the Nationals would be trending upwards for most of the season.
Has Niese changed that much, or have the Nationals? Probably some of both. But where they were able to beat around starters like Niese, at least on occasion, earlier in the season, they're mostly making them look like All-Stars at this point in the year.
They scored just one run on six hits off Niese in a 5-3 loss to the Mets, slogging through seven innings against the left-hander. That rendered moot a spirited ninth-inning rally, which ended when Roger Bernadina was picked off second with the go-ahead run at the plate and Willie Harris a ball away from loading the bases. The defeat evened the series at a game apiece and dropped the Nationals to 35-46 at the halfway point of the season.
Niese, who had never struck out more than seven in a game, had surpassed that total by the end of the fourth inning, and the Nationals managed just two extra-base hits off him.
They can take some positives out of the three-hit, one-walk ninth they put together off Elmer Dessens and Francisco Rodriguez - and many players did after the game - but when they're in such a deep hole, how much does it matter?
"We strung some good at-bats together late, and it turned out to be a little too late," said outfielder Josh Willingham, who hit his 15th homer of the season. "We've got to start doing it a little earlier."
Using Bill James' Game Score concept for pitchers, which assigns a quality start 50 points, the following pitchers have looked like aces in wins over the Nationals in the last months: Jeremy Bonderman (a game score of 66 on June 17), Gavin Floyd (74 on June 18), Bruce Chen (57 on June 21), Brian Bannister (64 on June 23) and now Niese (69 on Friday). Niese, who has won five in a row, looks like he has a strong future in the majors, but with the possible exception of Floyd, it's hard to say that about anybody else in that group.
Like they have with many of the pitchers before him, the Nationals made things far too easy for Niese on Friday, failing to work a walk off him despite getting seven three-ball counts. The first of those came in the first inning, when Nyjer Morgan was caught stealing in the middle of Adam Dunn's at-bat.
Second-base umpire Bill Welke told manager Jim Riggleman that Morgan was already off the base when third baseman David Wright tagged him, despite Morgan's contention he was pushed off the base by Wright's momentum. And with the Mets playing a severe shift on Dunn, he struck out to end the inning.
It would be more of the same most of the night; the Nationals continued to get ahead in counts, but wound up waving at Niese's cutter before they could build any momentum against him.
There's no magic fix for the Nationals' habit of bowing to pedestrian starters, either. Sometimes they swung at pitches out of the zone against Niese; others, they took good hacks and just missed. They're drawing far fewer walks as a team (80 in their last 29 games, compared to 93 in the previous 29), but they do appear to have some players coming out of long slumps - both Morgan and Ian Desmond had two hits on Friday.
So maybe there's something to be said for taking the glass half-full approach, as manager Jim Riggleman said he would do after the game. But that would be easier if the Nationals' late-inning rallies had a functional purpose, not just a cosmetic one.
And for that to happen, they'd have to stop making Niese and his brethren so comfortable on the mound.
"He's got good stuff," Riggleman said. "When we saw him earlier, he was good. But he's found something. He was much tougher tonight than he was in the past."