NEW YORK – Mike Rizzo was discussing the Nationals’ ragged opening two months to this season about an hour before first pitch of today’s series finale at Citi Field and on multiple occasions singled out his team’s poor fundamentals for making life even more difficult than it already is on a struggling pitching staff and lineup.
“We’re a team that the margin for error is small,” the longtime general manager said. “We can’t be giving extra outs on defense, and running into outs on the basepaths. To me, walks and errors have been the Achilles’ heel of the start.”
By day’s end, Rizzo had seen that very scenario play out and contribute to yet another loss. The Nats’ 5-0 defeat at the hands of the Mets, completing a three-game sweep, perhaps was inevitable regardless because the lineup was shut out for the second straight day and has now gone 21 consecutive innings without scoring a run. But it’s also not inaccurate to say four of the five runs they surrendered were a direct result of shaky defense and two of the five walks their pitching staff issued.
"The walks and the defense: Two bad combinations," manager Davey Martinez said. "We've got to play better on defense,and we've got to limit the walks. I've always said the hitting comes and goes. That's part of the game. But you've got to do three constants: Play defense, run the bases well and pitch well. And today, two of the three things we didn't do well."
This team, as Rizzo noted, simply can’t afford to make fundamental mistakes because it simply doesn’t have enough consistent offensive firepower or an accomplished enough pitching staff to make up for it. Perhaps it could’ve been overlooked today, but only if they had produced at the plate to offset the other stuff.
They didn’t. For the second straight day, the Nationals were shut out by the Mets. They produced six singles during Tuesday night’s 10-0 loss. They produced five singles and a double this afternoon.
There were a few prime scoring opportunities that were squandered. After New York starter Carlos Carrasco issued three straight two-out walks in the top of the third, Yadiel Hernandez stepped to the plate with a chance to deliver but proceeded to strike out looking at a 1-2 changeup to strand the bases loaded.
Dee Strange-Gordon came up with runners on the corners and one out in the fourth, then did the worst thing he could possibly do and grounded into an inning-ending double play.
Hernandez had another chance to come through in the fifth, with runners on second and third and two out, then proceeded to tap the first pitch he saw about 18 inches in front of the plate and immediately get tagged out by catcher Tomás Nido.
"Obviously in the moment where you are able to drive in a run, you want to drive it in," Hernandez said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "And sometimes you put pressure on yourself, not in a negative way. It's almost like you want to do too much, and excite yourself too much. And when you're not able to, it's obviously disappointing."
With one last chance to make something big happen, the Nationals had two on with nobody out in the eighth but could not advance either runner when Maikel Franco and Luis García (who struck out three times and singled in his first big league game of the season) each struck out and Keibert Ruiz grounded out weakly to second.
All of that made a hard-luck loser out of Evan Lee, who wasn’t really to blame for anything in his major league debut.
Every organization tries to create a setting for a pitching prospect making his debut that is as advantageous as possible, whether that means a home game, a game against a struggling opponent or some other factor that helps put the young hurler’s mind at ease. In this case, the Nationals had no real choice but to throw Lee to the wolves and hope for the best.
Needing a spot starter to account for last Saturday’s doubleheader against the Rockies, and having already burned up long relievers Josh Rogers and Paolo Espino during Monday night’s blowout loss, the Nats turned to their best available option to start today’s game: Lee, who was already on the proper five-day schedule and was already on the organization’s 40-man roster.
He learned he was getting called up while out with the entire Harrisburg team at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Erie, Pa., called his family to make sure they could meet him in New York and then took the mound today with emotions running wild.
"I got some really good advice before the game to take a moment to really look around," Lee said. "When you toe that rubber, just look around and admire being there on that big league mound, that I would never forget it. And I can't thank them enough for that, because it was special to achieve a lifelong dream, and to go out and have some success. I wish I had a couple pitches back from the outing, and there were a couple batters I feel like I fell behind when I needed to get ahead in some certain scenarios. But as far as a first debut, I'll take it."
The matchup against a potent and persistent New York lineup was an exceptionally tough one, but under the circumstances the 24-year-old lefty held his own. He found himself having to pitch out of traffic throughout his start, with multiple runners on base in three of his four innings. But he got through the first two frames unscathed, thanks to results like a strikeout of Mark Canha on a 3-2 slider and a strikeout of Eduardo Escobar on a 3-2 fastball that tailed away from the veteran hitter.
Lee’s good fortune came to an end in the fourth, though, when he put two on with one out and then surrendered a single up the middle to Nido. That hit should only have scored one run, but another wound up coming all the way around to cross the plate after Strange-Gordon (getting a rare start in center field) bobbled the ball for an error.
Lee, who was ticketed for only 3-4 innings from the outset, would face one more batter before Martinez came to the mound and asked for the ball. He departed having allowed two runs on four hits over 3 2/3 innings, struggling at times with command (three walks, one hit batter) but emerging from a particularly tough challenge in one piece.
"He'll probably get another opportunity in five days to go out there again," Martinez said. "I like him. He was very poised. He mentioned some things after he came out, which I liked. I'm looking forward to seeing him pitch again."
The Mets would add an insurance run in the seventh with a pair of singles that could’ve been outs had César Hernández or Juan Soto been able to make plays in the field, a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly. They would then add two more in the eighth when Yadiel Hernandez dove to try to catch Nido’s sinking liner to left and wound up letting the ball roll to the warning track.
That’s all it took to take down the Nationals today, the latest such example of an undermanned team making life even more difficult on itself than necessary and paying the price for it.
"They've got to come out and catch the baseball, plain and simple," Martinez said. "It's a big part of the game. We've got to limit our mistakes. You can't give good teams 30-31 outs. You're beating yourselves. We've got to play better defense."