NEW YORK - There are three conventional ways to score runs in baseball. You can string together several hits in an inning. You can try to manufacture with small ball. Or you can hit the ball out of the park.
The Nationals proved adept at none of the three tonight. The Mets proved adept only at the latter. And that was this game in a nutshell: a 2-0 New York victory made possible by two solo homers off an otherwise dominant Max Scherzer, combined with no real offensive attack by Washington against a completely dominant Noah Syndergaard.
"Usually, you give up two solos against a lesser pitcher, and you're not gonna lose," manager Dusty Baker said. "Syndergaard was throwing the heck out of the ball over there. So we didn't have a whole bunch of opportunities."
No, they certainly did not. The Nationals actually outhit the Mets 5-4, but those five hits came in the form of four singles and a double. And only twice did any of the hits come in the same inning.
Thus, the Nats' entire offensive hope tonight boiled down to a couple of at-bats with men on base.
Their best chance came in the top of the second, after Ryan Zimmerman turned on a 99-mph fastball from Syndergaard and drilled it to the gap in left-center for a one-out double, then Anthony Rendon lined a 91-mph slider to left for a single.
With runners on the corners, one out and Wilson Ramos at the plate, the strategy was pretty clear. Syndergaard has struggled mightily to stop the running game. And with Ramos a prime double-play target, the Nationals knew they needed to put Rendon in motion.
Trouble was, Rendon couldn't find the right pitch to do it. And when Ramos grounded Syndergaard's 1-1 fastball to second base, it was too late. The Mets turned two, the inning ended and the Nats had nothing to show for it.
"I was hoping to run, but he couldn't get a jump," Baker said. "We knew it. He knew it. They knew it. Everybody knew it. But if you can't get a jump, you don't want to run into an out, either."
Four innings later, the Nationals did finally attempt to run on Syndergaard, with Ben Revere taking off after his one-out single. But backup catcher Kevin Plawecki threw a strike to Neil Walker, who put the tag on Revere just as he slid into second base.
Umpire James Hoye called him out, Revere pointed at his dugout to get Baker's attention and the Nats wound up challenging the call. It still didn't work. The replay official a few miles away in Manhattan couldn't find conclusive evidence Revere's hand touched the base before he was tagged, so he remained out ... a development that stung even worse when Jayson Werth singled moments later.
That's the kind of night it was for a Nationals lineup that now features five regulars hitting .237 or worse (Zimmerman, Werth, Rendon, Revere and Danny Espinosa). And the odds of that group snapping out of its collective funk against the hardest-throwing starting pitcher in baseball were miniscule.
"He's got devastating stuff," said Bryce Harper, who struck out twice and grounded out weakly against Syndergaard. "I mean, fastball, slider's 93 (mph), changeup's devastating as well. That's a tough guy to hit. He goes out there every single night he pitches and strikes out 10 and does what he does. Not many offenses can go out there and just punish the ball against that guy."
Opposing hitters say similar things about Scherzer, who has proven just about as tough a foe as there has been in the game the last few years. And the Nationals ace was very good on this night, backing up his 20-strikeout game with 10 more in only 6 1/3 innings.
But, as has been the case all too often since late last summer, Scherzer's bugaboo was the longball. He gave up only three hits tonight, but two of them cleared the fence: Curtis Granderson's first-pitch homer in the bottom of the first and Michael Conforto's solo shot in the bottom of the third.
"It's the first pitch of the game; I'm not going to beat myself up over that," Scherzer said of Granderson's leadoff homer. "It's kind of what happens. The Conforto one, look, I made a mistake. He got it. You go out there and you try to execute pitches. If my mindset was wrong, or if I didn't think the sequence was right, that's where I hold myself accountable and I start questioning: 'What am I doing out there?' But it just comes down to the execution."
Just as games like this sometimes come down to execution of a couple key at-bats, the ones that prove the difference when two elite pitchers square off.