With a 6-3 lead over the red-hot New York Mets in the bottom of the ninth, all Doolittle had to do was record three outs and the Nats would come away with another important divisional win.
But the Mets pummeled Doolittle’s fastball to the tune of four consecutive hits, highlighted by Todd Frazier’s three-run game-tying homer down the left field line that brought the 39,602 at Citi Field into a frenzy.
Four batters later, Michael Conforto ended it with a well hit single that looked like right fielder Adam Eaton might have had a play on, but instead the ball sailed over his glove to bounce up against the right field wall.
Pinch-hitter Juan Lagares easily scored from second base to send the Mets to the improbable 7-6 comeback win, their seventh victory in a row, and 14th in their last 15 games.
“What didn’t go wrong?” asked a bewildered Doolittle afterward. “I don’t have a lot of answers right now. I’m kind of searching, going over the inning in my head right now. The one thing that jumps to mind is I wasn’t happy how the ball was coming out of my hand.
“I looked up at the scoreboard a few times and saw some 91 and 92 mph and I might’ve been overthrowing, over-compensating, trying to throw a little bit too hard and do too much. They were obviously seeing it really well. I think I only got maybe one or two swings and misses. I didn’t even have really a chance to get ahead in counts they were so aggressive with it, putting the ball in play. I think I made all that mess and I only threw 20-some pitches.”
Nationals manager Davey Martinez said he felt that Doolittle was not recording his usual swings and misses because he was not able to elevate the fastball high in the zone.
“I think he just couldn’t get the ball up,” Martinez noticed. “He’s effective when he is up. He threw some balls a little lower than normal. But when he’s up he’s effective.”
The devasting loss ended the Nats three-game win streak, dropping them to 61-54. Coupled with the Braves 8-4 win over the Marlins, the Nats fell to 6 1/2 games back in the National League East. The Mets (60-56) now trail the Nats by just 1 1/2 games in the NL wild card race, enjoying a three-way tie for the final playoff spot with the Brewers and Cardinals.
“It’s unfortunate,” Martinez said. “It stings a little bit but we got another game tomorrow and I absolutely love the way the guys played. We played good defense. They ran the bases well. Got some clutch hits, we did everything right until ninth inning.”
The bottom of the ninth inning started with a J.D. Davis double. Wilson Ramos singled. Frazier then blasted the three-run shot to tie the game. Pitching coach Paul Menhart went out to visit with Doolittle. Joe Panik singled. Lagares’ fielder’s choice was fielded by Rendon who threw to second base to get Panik. Doolittle twisted his knee a bit on the play but said he was OK.
“I’m fine,” Doolittle said. ‘I kind of jammed my knee a little bit trying to get out of Tony’s way, that’s just me being unathletic,” Doolittle said. “It kind of scared me more than anything else for a second. But no, I’m fine.”
Doolittle allowed a couple of runs in the Atlanta series, but then recorded two saves early on this current road trip. Had he been feeling out of rhythm recently?
“No. No,” Doolittle said. “I’ve been feeling really good. My outings on this road trip, I’ve been really happy with how I’ve been throwing the ball and really, for the last several outings.
“I know I gave up that home run at home against the Braves, but other than that, I feel like I’ve been happy with how I’ve been throwing the ball. Tonight, for some reason, I didn’t have it. Tomorrow, go to work and start making some adjustments.”
After starters Stephen Strasburg and Marcus Stroman dueled to a scoreless tie for three frames, the Nationals raced out to a 3-0 lead in the fourth inning on an RBI triple from Anthony Rendon and a two-run shot from Juan Soto.
The Mets answered in the bottom of the inning with back-to-back jacks to tie the game at 3-3: a two-run shot from Pete Alonso and a solo homer by Davis.
Rendon’s 25th homer of the season gave the Nats the lead in the seventh 5-3. The two-run shot off of reliever Justin Wilson in the seventh inning made it easily over the left field wall and glove of Davis. The Nats added an insurance run in the ninth when Trea Turner scored from third base on a wild pitch by Luis Avilán to make it 6-3.
Strasburg struck out six batters to set a new Nats/Expos franchise record for career strikeouts with 1,625, surpassing Steve Rogers’ record of 1,621 punchouts.
Despite the two homers allowed, Strasburg completed the quality start, going seven innings, allowing three runs on just four hits with two walks. He fired 97 pitches, 62 for strikes. Stroman ended up allowing four runs on nine hits over six innings plus one batter.
In the eighth, Daniel Hudson arrived and managed to wiggle out of trouble thanks to his 97 mph four-seam fastball and a knee-buckling 89 mph changeup. Jeff McNeil struck out looking on the changeup. After a Rosario double down the left field line, Hudson set down the two of the most dangerous Mets hitters in Conforto and Alonso on groundball outs.
But then Doolittle suffered his fifth blown save of the season by allowing four runs in the ninth. He has now given up 10 runs in his last three appearances against the Mets.
“I wasn’t thinking about it at all til I was walking off the field,” Doolittle said. “It wasn’t like I came in here looking to exorcise any demons or anything like that.”
Doolittle then paused to collect his thoughts.
“But walking off the field with that same sick feeling. It was kind of surreal.”