NEW YORK – By the time the Braves defeated the Marlins in Miami to clinch their fifth straight National League East title, the Mets already were routing the Nationals at Citi Field, having blitzed Paolo Espino for seven runs in the first inning to deal the right-hander an embarrassing concluding chapter to his season.
At that point, there was nothing official left for the Mets to play for in the regular season, their focus now shifting to the best-of-three Wild Card Series they’ll host against either the Padres or Phillies beginning here Friday night.
But even as the rain picked up and left the small, shivering crowd scrambling for cover by the sixth inning, they pressed on and played this game to its conclusion, the Nationals handed an unsightly, 8-0 loss in which they struck out 17 times for their 106th loss of the season.
They’ll return Wednesday afternoon one final time to wrap up a miserable 2022 and turn their sights to trying to ensure this doesn’t happen again in 2023.
This game saw shortstop CJ Abrams depart after 1 1/3 innings, having jammed his left shoulder trying to make a diving catch in the field. Manager Davey Martinez said Abrams will get an MRI on Wednesday to be sure he didn't suffer any structural damage.
"We'll know more after the MRI," Martinez said. "He fell pretty hard. But hopefully it's just mild soreness."
Victor Robles also departed the opener after his right calf tightened up running out a fifth-inning double.
Game 161 of 162, which began 45 minutes after the Nats took a 4-2 loss in the opening of this straight doubleheader, was over by the end of the first inning. The Mets – at the time still mathematically alive for the division title, unlikely as it seemed – ambushed Espino in a manner rarely seen in any ballpark, no matter the level.
Brandon Nimmo led off the bottom of the first with a 397-foot homer to right. Francisco Lindor followed with a 410-foot homer to right. Jeff McNeil followed that with a 392-foot homer to right. So it was the Mets hit back-to-back-to-back home runs to begin a game for the first time in franchise history.
"That's definitely my worst appearance ever, I think," Espino said. "Pro ball, Little League or anything. It's definitely going to be a night that I will forget after tonight."
Espino, who was serving up 87-mph fastballs on a 56-degree, rainy, windy October night in Flushing, never recovered. He failed to retire any of the first six batters he faced, issuing back-to-back walks to load the bases, still with nobody out. He finally recorded his lone out on a sacrifice fly to right by Mark Canha, though Lane Thomas’ perfect throw would’ve produced a double play had catcher Tres Barrera not inexplicably backed up to catch it while standing behind the plate, causing him to miss the tag.
When Luis Guillorme doubled down the right field line after that, Davey Martinez walked to the mound and asked for the ball from a shell-shocked Espino. A subsequent two-run double by Nimmo off reliever Reed Garrett closed the book on the 35-year-old, who wound up charged with seven runs in one-third of an inning, his season ERA skyrocketing from 4.30 to 4.84 in the process.
"His location; he wasn't throwing the ball where he wanted to throw it," Martinez said. "He got behind, they were on the fastball. His breaking balls were not where he wanted them. It's just a tough outing for him."
Espino’s season, which began with a dominant run as a long reliever in the bullpen, ended with zero wins and far less success as a starter. He finished with 113 1/3 innings, four shy of the record for a pitcher who did not win a game set by the Twins’ Terry Felton in 1982.
"I think this one last outing doesn't mean everything," Espino said of his season. "I think everything I was able to do during the season, being in the 'pen at the beginning, starting a lot of games, going back and forth, I think that's something special, too. Overall, it was a good season."
With the Mets ahead by seven runs, the two teams essentially went through the motions the rest of the way. The Nationals, who admirably have battled throughout this miserable season no matter the circumstances, seemed to finally give in. They struck out 10 times in 4 1/3 innings against New York starter Taijuan Walker. They continued to pile up the strikeouts against the Mets bullpen at a near-historic rate.
The club record for strikeouts in a nine-inning game is 18, which remarkably was set in a 2-0 victory in the nightcap of an Oct. 3, 2015 doubleheader at Citi Field, a game far better remembered for the 17-strikeout no-hitter Max Scherzer threw against the Mets.
They came up one short of matching that mark tonight, a small consolation.
"We swung through a lot of pitches," Martinez said. "Missed a lot of pitches we could've hit. And then we swung through a lot of pitches."