NEW YORK - As the bottom of the fifth arrived at Citi Field, Davey Martinez knew what he needed from Austin Voth: one more scoreless inning. One more clean inning, and the rookie manager could pull his rookie starter and be content with the three early runs he allowed, at the very least giving his team a chance to come back from that three-run deficit with four innings yet to play.
But as the bottom of the fifth played out, it became apparent that best-case scenario simply wasn’t going to come to fruition. Voth got himself into a jam, looked gassed and was facing the Mets lineup for the third time. Yet the 26-year-old, whose own spot in the lineup was due to lead off the top of the sixth, remained on the mound, his manager believing he had a good chance of recording a couple more outs and getting back to the dugout in one piece.
“I really thought he did,” Martinez said.
Those couple more outs never came, though, at least not from Voth. Six consecutive Mets batters reached base, three of them crossing the plate, before Martinez finally made the walk to the plate and informed umpire Alan Porter he was making a double-switch.
“I was competing,” Voth said. “I was trying to do the best I could. Just kind of ran out of gas towards the end.”
Who knows how the rest of this game may have transpired if not for that agonizing stretch in the bottom of the fifth. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. This much is certain: The Nationals lost 7-4, fell below the .500 mark again and didn’t have a very realistic chance of changing the outcome of this game once they were stuck in such a deep hole.
“I’ve said this before: Scoring first is key,” Martinez said. “It seems like we’re always playing from behind. When we score first, good things happen. The end result is what we want it to be. We’ve got to go out there and try to score first tomorrow, try to win tomorrow and then have a nice break.”
With one game remaining before the All-Star break, the Nats find themselves in no better shape than they did a week ago. The Phillies and Braves both were shut out today, so the deficit in the National League East remains 6 1/2 games. But now there are fewer opportunities to make up the necessary ground, with only 67 games remaining on the schedule.
Martinez knew his team faced a disadvantageous situation today, with Voth making his major league debut in a game the Nationals needed to win. The right-hander’s long-awaited first big league start - he had previously been called up three times from Triple-A Syracuse without appearing on the mound - turned into a roller coaster of an event.
Voth was singled to death early on, allowing four straight hits in the bottom of the second, which when combined with two productive outs and some smart baserunning brought home three runs. The rookie settled into a groove after that, though, and retired 10-of-11 batters during one stretch.
“I feel like he showed good presence out there on the mound,” first baseman Matt Adams said. “He battled. His stuff looked good.”
But then came the critical sequence in the bottom of the fifth. It began with back-to-back, one-out walks of Asdrúbal Cabrera and José Bautista, prompting the bullpen phone to ring and Wander Suero to begin warming up. But as that all occurred, Voth grooved a 1-2 fastball to Michael Conforto, who promptly drove the ball into the right field bullpen for a back-breaking, three-run homer.
“I felt like I was still in control,” the pitcher said. “Just let a fastball leak over the plate. I was throwing it up and in and getting swing and misses to the lefties all day, and just one mistake pitch.”
Suddenly down 6-0, Voth remained on the mound to face three more batters, all of whom singled, another run crossing the plate in the process. It was only then, with his team down seven runs, that Martinez removed his young starter.
“I think it’s a lesson learned,” the manager said of his pitcher. “He got a chance to pitch. I told him: ‘You’re going to pitch up here. Learn from your mistakes and move on. Failure’s not a bad thing all the time. Just learn from it. And next time you get an opportunity, be ready.”
Suero did his part to prevent the Mets from tacking on any runs, tossing 2 2/3 scoreless innings and even batting for himself to lead off the seventh so the Nationals could avoid using another reliever. (Martinez explained that unconventional decision was made to avoid using relievers he only wanted to use today if the game was closer.) But the deficit was too large to overcome, even with some attempted late rallies.
The Nats got one run back in the sixth when Bryce Harper ripped a bases-loaded single to center on an 0-2 pitch from Zack Wheeler, but Adams’ subsequent double play grounder killed that potential for some sustained offense.
Adams did deliver two innings later when he sent a two-run homer just over the orange line in right field - it required confirmation by replay officials in Manhattan - to end Wheeler’s afternoon after 113 pitches. But even that blast merely trimmed the deficit to three runs. And these days, that’s an awful lot to ask the sub-.500 Nationals to overcome.
“Offensively, it’s gotta be better,” said Adam Eaton, who did go 3-for-4. “I’ve touched on that since I’ve been back. We need to get those big hits, two-out hits, guys-with-runners-in-scoring-position hits. Those are the hardest hits to get in all of baseball, but when you do them, the game looks easy. When you don’t do them, the game looks very difficult.”