NEW YORK - They took the field with a short bullpen, two of their arms unavailable due to recent heavy work. They had a short bench as well, already a man down because of the addition of another reliever and then down another after Ryan Zimmerman was deemed unable to play due to soreness in an unspecified body part.
Then their rookie starter managed to go only 3 2/3 innings, needing 90 pitches on a hot and muggy July night in the big city just to record 11 outs. And all of this came in the club’s 30th game in the last 31 days, the lone off-day coming after a red-eye flight from the West Coast.
Suffice it to say, the Nationals are a tired group right now, physically and mentally. They’ll get a chance to recharge their batteries very soon, with the All-Star break tantalizingly close now, but before that they’ve got quite a significant four-game series with the Mets at hand. And the result in the opener of that series was not an encouraging one.
This weary Nats team got caught up in an unofficial game of Home Run Derby with the Mets, and they came out on the wrong end, losing 9-7 at Citi Field in one of the wildest games of the season that perhaps underscored just how exhausted this bunch is at the moment.
“It’s too late to be concerned now because we get a rest in three days,” said manager Dusty Baker, whose club has four of its last six. “We’ve just got to find a way to win these games. Everybody’s tired. That’s why they have the All-Star break. If you’re not tired at this point, there’s a good chance you haven’t played much.”
The tenor of this game might have been completely different had Lucas Giolito been able to pitch deeper into the night and save Baker from turning to his bullpen so soon. But the 21-year-old right-hander, making his second career start, lacked command of both his fastball and curveball early, watched as the Mets drove up his pitch count and then ran out of gas altogether during a disastrous bottom of the fourth that included two homers, two doubles, a walk, a balk and an early trip to the showers.
“I didn’t really have good command from the start of the game,” he said. “And once I started to give up a lot of hard contact, the game started to speed up, and I kind of sped up with the game and was rushing through everything. ...
“It’s a lot different at this level, especially pitching here at Citi, which I’ve never done before. But I feel like in the past, I’ve done a decent job taking deep breaths, slowing the game down once things start to go haywire. Tonight, I didn’t do that at all, and it got away from me.”
In spite of Giolito’s struggles, the Nationals actually held a 6-4 lead following his departure, thanks to homers by Bryce Harper, Clint Robinson and Anthony Rendon, plus two more clutch RBIs from Daniel Murphy and Wilson Ramos in the top of the fifth.
But Baker’s bullpen wilted in the summer New York heat. Oliver Perez - the first reliever summoned instead of typical long man Yusmeiro Petit, according to Baker, because of the Mets’ abundance of left-handed batters, the unavailability of Blake Treinen and Felipe Rivero in the bullpen and the inability to pull a double-switch due to the short bench - served up a three-run homer to Wilmer Flores on a first-pitch fastball in the bottom of the fifth that gave the Mets a lead they ultimately would not relinquish.
“We know he’s a hitter I have to be careful with,” Perez said through interpreter Octavio Martinez. “Especially with fastballs inside or over the plate. And unfortunately that’s right where I missed.”
The Nationals tried to battle back after that, but Murphy’s solo homer in the seventh produced their last run of the night. The Mets, meanwhile, tacked on more runs against relievers Matt Belisle and Sammy Solis.
And when the Nationals had the makings of one final threat in the ninth against Jeurys Familia, they were done in by a stellar defensive play by shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera (who dove to his right to snag Murphy’s scorched grounder and threw to second base for a force out) and then by umpires’ decision to call Jayson Werth for an illegal slide past the bag trying to break up a double play that had little chance of being turned in the first place.
“What a great play,” Murphy said, complimenting Cabrera. “It was one of those where I hit it, and I was looking for it past him. I never saw it. He made a really nice play.”
After this one, the Nationals clubhouse was full of players both frustrated by the outcome and the controversial ninth-inning call, not to mention physically and mentally ready for the All-Star break. They may be forced to make a roster move Friday to bring in another healthy position player (perhaps top prospect Trea Turner).
In the meantime, what do they do to make sure their lead over the Mets (now down to three games) doesn’t get even tighter before they finally get to take four days off next week?
“Play good baseball,” Murphy said. “That’s all we can control.”