NEW YORK - It was one thing when the Nationals were shut out Thursday afternoon by Aaron Nola and Pat Neshek. It was quite another thing when they did the exact same thing tonight against Jason Vargas, Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman.
So much for any positive momentum to come out of their back-to-back, come-from-behind wins over the Phillies to begin the week. Since Ryan Zimmerman’s dramatic walk-off homer Wednesday night, the Nationals have been shut out twice, capped by tonight’s lifeless 3-0 loss to a Mets club that is going nowhere.
Thursday’s offensive performance - or lack thereof - could be excused because it came against Nola, who outdueled Max Scherzer and made his own case in the three-way Royal Rumble for this year’s National League Cy Young Award. Tonight? It’s much harder to tip your cap to Vargas, who had done nothing prior this season to make anyone believe he had a dominating performance in himself.
“We didn’t have (many) opportunities today,” manager Davey Martinez said. “We just didn’t hit.”
Making things all the more aggravating, these last two losses have come in spite of highly effective pitching performances by the Nationals. Scherzer made one mistake Wednesday, resulting in a two-run homer by Odúbel Herrera. Gio Gonzalez got himself in more trouble tonight, but the erratic lefty delivered when he needed to, allowing only one first-inning run and then nothing more over seven strong frames.
“He did really well,” Martinez said. “Kept us in the game. That’s all we can ask.”
Tim Collins, brought in specifically to face Jay Bruce with two outs in the eighth, surrendered a two-run homer to the fresh-off-the-DL slugger that turned the one-run deficit into a three-run deficit. But it wouldn’t have mattered much, not the way the visitors swung the bats.
And if all that wasn’t enough to drive a Nationals fan nutty, the Braves and Phillies both lost tonight, making this yet another golden opportunity squandered by a ballclub that has spent the entire summer teasing everyone with a couple encouraging wins only to fall flat in the immediate aftermath.
The question has been asked repeatedly. The Nats still don’t have an answer for it.
“You can ask all you want. If we knew or you knew, we would have fixed it by now,” Trea Turner said. “Sometimes that’s baseball. It’s a hard game; that’s why you play 162 games. That’s why it is a long season. You have to do it over 160 games. I think that’s what makes baseball tough.”
Martinez came into this one with one simple wish: for Gonzalez to deliver a quality start and give his team a chance. It’s something the left-hander hasn’t done nearly enough this summer, and early on tonight his odds of pulling it off didn’t look so hot.
The Mets took a quick 1-0 lead after Amed Rosario led off the bottom of the first with a soft line drive single to right field, with Bryce Harper taking a step back instead of attempting to make a play on the ball on the fly. An apparent cross-up between Gonzalez and Matt Wieters allowed Rosario to advance to second, putting him in position to score on Wilmer Flores’ RBI single to left.
Though he escaped a second-inning jam with two runners in scoring position, Gonzalez nonetheless ended the frame with a pitch count of 48. That didn’t seem to foretell good things.
Yet the lefty dug in and did what his team needed him to do. By the time he completed the bottom of the sixth - an inning in which he took a comebacker off his left ankle and briefly was hunched over in pain - Gonzalez had allowed only one run while throwing 93 pitches. He returned to throw the seventh as well, looking less than 100 percent healthy but well enough to retire the side on 10 pitches.
“It was a little tender,” Gonzalez said. “I was just thinking the whole time: ‘I’ve got to finish this inning. Got to finish this inning.’ Once I settled down a little bit, once I took a little bit off it, it got a little tender and a little sore. We won’t quite feel the result of it until tomorrow, but as of now I’m still working on it.”
Gonzalez was limping around the clubhouse postgame, but he said he didn’t believe an X-ray or other tests were necessary. Despite the physical discomfort from the comebacker and the emotional discomfort of taking his 11th loss of the season, he was able to take comfort knowing he pitched far better than in recent starts.
“I want to pitch,” he said. “I want to show that I can continue to pitch. I believe I can pitch up here, and I believe I can pitch against the best. I want to play as long as I can. It’s one of those things where I know I can pitch better than I’m pitching right now.”
If only the Nationals had provided their starter with any semblance of run support tonight.
Vargas entered with a 7.67 ERA and only one outing this season in which he completed six innings. He departed with a 7.07 ERA, his second six-inning start of the year and a season-high eight strikeouts.
The Nationals barely made solid contact against Vargas. Zimmerman and Juan Soto led off the top of the second with singles but were promptly stranded without advancing any farther. Wieters led off the fifth with a single, only to watch the next three batters strike out.
So it went for a group of Nats hitters that looked just as lifeless tonight as it did Thursday afternoon in D.C. The problem: It was one thing to do that against a Cy Young Award candidate from Philadelphia. It was quite another thing to do it against a previously struggling journeyman from Flushing.
“I think it’s more when we face the kind of the guys that throw a good changeup left-handed, we struggle against that,” Martinez said. “I think with Vargas today we just needed to get the ball up and get him in the strike zone. And take our walks. We didn’t do that.”