NEW YORK - Officially, the difference between the Mets and Nationals in Washington's 8-4 loss at Citi Field on Saturday night was a dropped fly ball, a couple of hit-by-pitches and a grounder or two that got through the middle of the Nationals' infield.
And to a man, the players involved in those mistakes sat at their lockers after the game and took responsibility for what happened. Left field Jerry Hairston Jr., feeling that center fielder Rick Ankiel might be closing in to call him off on Carlos Beltran a fly ball, short-armed an easy out and dropped the ball in the sixth inning that helped the Mets score two runs. "I put us behind the eight-ball tonight," Hairston said. "I really feel responsible for the loss." Pitcher Brian Broderick credited the Mets for squeezing hits up the middle when they needed them, and starter Tom Gorzelanny - who had given up two homers to Beltran before the error - said the changeup he threw on the first homer was a mistake.
But there was a way for the Nationals to cover over those mistakes: drive in all the runners they put on base. Once again, they couldn't do that.
After going 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position on Saturday night, the Nationals are now 11-for-68 in those situations this year, after hitting .253 with men in scoring position last year. Situational hitting was an area the Nationals wanted to improve over the offseason, but the way they've started this year hasn't even measured up to last season.
Though they're hitting just .222 as a team, they entered Saturday night leading the National League in walks with 34 (they're up to 38 now). That's contributed to a .322 on-base percentage for the year, and the Nationals' more aggressive approach with the ball in play has led to them taking an extra base 48 percent of the time, seven percent above the league average.
The hits they need to sustain rallies, though, just aren't coming.
"Concern's not a word for me there," manager Jim Riggleman said. "I just know that we're going to get them in if we keep putting them on there. ... A lot of good things are happening. We'll finish off some of those innings here pretty soon."
Had they been able to finish some of them on Saturday night, they might be at .500 right now. They put runners on second and third with two out in the fifth inning, after Ian Desmond's homer, and had men on first and second with none out in the eighth. Even in the ninth, after the Mets had taken a four-run lead, the Nationals drew a couple walks off Francisco Rodriguez.
The first two rallies ended with groundouts, and after Jayson Werth hit into a double play in the ninth, Ryan Zimmerman struck out to end the game.
"We were in that game right until the last out," said left fielder Michael Morse, who played first base on Saturday. "I think this team is going to play like this the whole year. In baseball, you never know what's going to happen, but we played hard tonight."
Had they been able to cash in on some earlier chances, though, they might not have had to fight so hard, and their defensive mishaps might not have mattered so much. It's going to be tough for the Nationals to go on many win streaks if they can't sustain rallies; their pitching staff is going to struggle at times, and for all their attention to defensive improvements, they've still made nine errors in eight games, the most in the National League. The first time this week they lost a game on a dropped fly ball - in 11 innings against the Marlins on Tuesday - they left 12 on base.
If that number goes down, the Nationals' margin for error will go up. Right now, it's just not big enough to sustain the problems they had on Saturday.