Nats' makeshift lineup can't complete late rally in 4-2 loss to Mets

With a makeshift lineup, a fill-in starter and an ace on the mound opposite them, the Nationals entered tonight's series opener against the Mets in a less-than-advantageous position.

Sometimes, those seemingly lopsided matchups flip the opposite way and produce memorable and unlikely outcomes. Not this time. This one went according to script. Despite a few dramatic moments late when a last-ditch comeback nearly happened.

Despite an effective pitching performance from A.J. Cole, filling in for the still-recovering Max Scherzer, the Nationals couldn't get anything going at the plate against Jacob deGrom and couldn't complete an improbable rally late, suffering a 4-2 loss to New York before a crowd of 34,036 that didn't have much reason to get excited for the majority of the night.

In the opener of "Players Weekend" across the majors, both clubs wore Little League-style jerseys with nicknames across the back. Fans might have benefitted from the actual last names of the Nationals players, because a good number of them weren't familiar to some.

Resting several of his regulars after a late flight in from Houston that didn't arrive at Washington Dulles International Airport until 4:30 a.m., manager Dusty Baker was left with a makeshift lineup. That unit struggled mightily against deGrom, who carried a shutout into the eighth before finally surrendering his lone run of the night.

"Well, a lot of it had to do with DeGrom out there," Baker said. "He was tough on some of our guys."

sidebar-Lind-white.jpgOnce they finally got to the Mets bullpen, the Nationals nearly stormed back in the bottom of the ninth. Adam Lind greeted A.J. Ramos with a solo homer to center. Wilmer Difo doubled, and after Michael A. Taylor sent a flyball to center, Anthony Rendon just missed a home run down the left field line before drawing a one-out walk to bring Matt Wieters to the plate representing the winning run.

Wieters drew a walk of his own, and that brought Howie Kendrick to the plate with the bases loaded. Kendrick ripped a line drive to right, but right at Brandon Nimmo for the second out. Andrew Stevenson thus became the Nationals' last hope, and the rookie struck out looking to end the game.

"I thought Anthony's ball had a chance to leave," Baker said. "Then Howie hit a ball extremely hard to right, too shallow. Just pure perseverance and not wanting to lose, that's what I attribute that last inning to."

The way this game began, Cole didn't figure to be around for long. The right-hander needed to throw 26 pitches merely to face the Mets' first four batters, three of whom reached safely, capped by Asdrúbal Cabrera's RBI single to right.

"I was trying to be a little too perfect, too quick, instead of just trying to let them get themselves out or anything," Cole said. "I was trying to get them out in one pitch, so I was just kind of being a little too fine right away."

But then came a fortuitous break: Dominic Smith's chopper up the middle should have scored Yoenis Céspedes from second base, but the ball clipped umpire Andy Fletcher. By rule, runners were permitted to advance only one base, so Céspedes was forced to go back to third. (Actually, pinch-runner Matt Reynolds was forced to go back to third after Céspedes strained his hamstring on the original play.)

Cole then struck out both Travis d'Arnaud and Amed Rosario, and in doing so stranded the bases loaded with only one run having crossed the plate despite a 36-pitch top of the first. The young right-hander then got down to business. He retired 16 of the last 20 batters he faced, never letting anyone advance past first base, turning what could've been a ragged outing into a quality start.

"We were lucky to get out of there with just one run, because it hit the umpire," Baker said. "He got out of that inning with just one run. We certainly didn't need him to have a short outing because of the state of our bullpen. That was our 6 a.m. arrival lineup in there. He buckled down, and (catcher Jose Lobaton) called a good game for him and he took us deep into the game and gave us a good chance to win."

Cole gave them a chance, but even the one run he surrendered loomed large all night for a Nationals club that faced a stiff challenge in deGrom. Already beset by injuries, Baker's lineup additionally was without Ryan Zimmerman (who Baker revealed was unavailable after hurting his left shoulder sliding into plate Thursday night and won't play Saturday, either), Rendon, Kendrick and Wieters.

The ensuing results didn't come as a huge surprise. The Nationals managed only three singles and a walk through seven innings against deGrom, who rarely found himself facing any kind of significant trouble.

And the challenge only got tougher when the Mets tacked on a couple of insurance runs in the top of the eighth off reliever Matt Grace, extending their lead to 3-0.

That the Nationals did make things awfully interesting in the ninth spoke highly of their ability not to roll over. Given the circumstances surrounding Thursday night's game, an overnight flight home and another game tonight, it might have been easy to put forth something less than their best effort.

"It's a little different," Stevenson said of the travel scenario. "Change of schedule. But they allowed us to sleep in a little bit, so I don't really think that had too much of an effect on us today. We'll be ready to go tomorrow."

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