Baseball, you probably have heard, is a game of constant adjustments. This is especially true on those more-frequent-than-you-think occasions when a starting pitcher faces the same opponent twice in a row.
So when Gio Gonzalez faced the Mets tonight for the second time in five days, with Bartolo Colon facing the Nationals also for the second time in five days, the challenge for each side was clear: Make the necessary adjustments to change the outcome from the first head-to-head meeting.
Which is precisely what happened. Five days after Gonzalez and the Nationals beat Colon and the Mets by a score of 7-1, Colon and the Mets beat Gonzalez and the Nationals by the exact same score.
New York's hitters, stymied by Gonzalez at Citi Field on Wednesday night, pounced on him for seven runs, including five in the third inning alone, this time around. And the Nats lineup, which patiently waited out Colon's command issues on Wednesday and drove his pitch count way up, wasn't able to enjoy the same level of success this time when the newly-turned 43-year-old carved them up with pinpoint command of his mid-80s fastball.
"This game is a game of adjustments," manager Dusty Baker said. "And they adjusted quite well to Gio today."
Gonzalez took full blame for it, saying too many of his pitches were "flat," particularly those three that wound up clearing the fence: David Wright's three-run homer in the third, then back-to-back solo shots by Yoenis Cespedes and Neil Walker in the fifth.
"It just felt like there was nothing behind the pitches I was throwing," said Gonzalez, who saw his ERA spike from 1.86 to 2.87 in the span of two hours. "Some of the pitches I was throwing were pretty flat."
The Mets, who managed only one run on five hits against Gonzalez last week, turned quite aggressive during their five-run rally in the top of the third. They produced five consecutive hits on a grand total of eight pitches.
"It turns into like a feeding frenzy," Baker said. "We've seen that on our side when they start first-ball hitting, and they smell blood in the water. So it happened, and next thing you know, it was five runs."
The Nationals might have been able to withstand the Mets' quick-strike barrage against Gonzalez had they simply been able to repeat their most-recent performance against Colon, who allowed three runs on five hits, five walks and a hit batter last week.
But they couldn't muster up anything after stringing together three singles in the bottom of the first to plate their lone run, totaling two singles and two walks the rest of the night against Colon, against whom they could not find the proper adjustment.
"When you've played a team so much and you know pitchers and they know you so much, that's something you do all the time anyway," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "It doesn't really matter if it's within the same week or not. He just threw better tonight, made pitches when he needed to."
Colon also took advantage of an ice-cold Bryce Harper, who went 0-for-4 and hit the ball out of the infield just once, extending his growing slump to new depths.
Harper is batting just .183 with three extra-base hits and 25 strikeouts over his last 25 games. Though his on-base percentage is a whopping .450 thanks to 35 walks, the reigning National League MVP is not doing damage when he actually gets a pitch to hit the way he did while winning NL Player of the Month in April.
"You have to understand that they're going to give me maybe one pitch a game, or two pitches a game," Harper said. "If you don't do damage on it, then that's your fault. You try to go into every at-bat thinking they're going to throw a strike. If they don't, then try to take your walk and let the guys behind you do your job. I'm not doing the job of hitting that one pitch."
Harper, who said he "felt great" at the plate tonight, walked into the clubhouse 40 minutes after the game ended, still in full uniform, batting gloves on, bat in hand. Though he wouldn't comment when asked whether he had just come from the cage, it wasn't difficult to figure out.
"I think he's handling it pretty well," Baker said. "How many times can you say: 'Hang with 'em,' or pat a guy on the back? All you can do right now is give him some love. Right now, the number one that's not giving him love is his bat. That's what gives a hitter love, when you're getting hits and hitting the ball hard. Right now, he just needs some understanding and love from all of us. He'll come out of it."