NEW YORK - Davey Martinez got five outs from three relievers before deciding he couldn’t take any more chances. He walked to the mound with two outs in the eighth, signaled for the only reliable arm he has in his bullpen and asked him to protect a one-run lead against the bottom of the Mets lineup.
And Sean Doolittle couldn’t do it.
If the only member of the Nationals relief corps who has been remotely effective all season can’t get the job done, what else can Martinez and Co. do?
“I’m disgusted with myself,” Doolittle said. “I let the team down. And it hurts.”
Tonight’s 6-1 loss to the Mets was as soul-crushing as any the Nationals have suffered through these harrowing first 49 games of 2019. They got a fantastic start from Max Scherzer. They got an early home run from Adam Eaton off Jacob deGrom. They got five outs from Joe Ross, Matt Grace and Kyle Barraclough to protect a 1-0 lead. And then they gave the ball to Doolittle and everything fell apart in spectacular fashion.
Doolittle faced four batters in the eighth. He failed to retire any of them. Six runs crossed the plate off pitches he threw: three via Juan Lagares’ double to left-center, three via Rajai Davis’ pinch-hit homer.
“It was shocking,” Martinez said. “Good word for it. He’s the best. The best we have, and he comes through in those moments. That’s all I can say.”
Just like that, the Nats dropped the first three games of this series against a supposedly reeling Mets club that suddenly looks re-energized while the visitors sit shell-shocked and a stunning 11 games under .500, matching their lowest point from the 2011 season (the year before they became perennial contenders).
“Everyone hates losing,” Scherzer said. “Everyone in here hates losing. You don’t have time to feel sorry for yourself. You play every single day. You’ve got to come out tomorrow and compete. Nothing else you can do.”
Scherzer competed as well as he has all season tonight. He was brilliant for six innings, but a host of long at-bats by Mets hitters left him with a pitch count of 109 and an earlier-than-hoped exit despite the fact he had thrown a shutout. That meant Martinez needed to cobble together nine outs from his bullpen, perhaps the most challenging task in baseball right now.
Things worked out well for a while. Ross got the first out of the seventh, then gave way to Grace, who recorded the next two outs to keep the 1-0 lead intact. Barraclough opened the eighth, and though he surrendered a one-out double to Adeiny Hechavarria on a drive to the wall that fell between Juan Soto and Victor Robles, he also retired Pete Alonso, who appeared on paper to be the only serious threat in the Mets lineup.
Not so. Doolittle was done in by the light-hitting bottom of the order. He plunked Carlos Gómez in the elbow with his first pitch, served up the double to Lagares, intentionally walked Wilson Ramos and then served up the shocking home run to Davis (the journeyman’s first at-bat for New York).
“It kind of happened so quick. I’m still kind of processing it, to be honest with you,” the closer said. “A couple of those guys have given me some trouble this year. I tried to make some adjustments. ... I don’t know, it’s tough. And it’s a tough spot to come in. And the context of how our season’s going, it hurts you even more.”
Doolittle has been asked to record more than three outs on six occasions this season. He allowed two inherited runners to score the first time, but he hadn’t given up any runs since until tonight.
He insisted he has no qualms with the manner in which he’s been used, and said the extra work had no effect on tonight’s result.
“No, no. I mean, no,” he said. “I can read the situation and understand now pretty well what Davey’s thinking. And no, that has nothing to do with it. I appreciate trying to make excuses, but I messed that one up all by myself.”
All of this spoiled yet another great start by Scherzer, who somehow has seen his team go 2-9 on days he pitches this season.
The best way to beat an ace often is to get him right away, in the first inning. Both teams tried to do it tonight; only the Nationals were successful, thanks to one big swing from a somewhat unlikely source.
Eaton hasn’t hit for much power this season, but he pounced on the first pitch he saw from deGrom and blasted it to right field for his fourth homer of the year and sixth hit in 14 career at-bats against the Mets ace.
New York also had a chance to get on the board early, thanks to Matt Adams’ ugly attempted throw from first to second base that wound up in left field. That left Scherzer to deal with a two-on, one-out jam, but the Washington ace responded by striking out cleanup hitter Alonso via a high fastball and then getting Todd Frazier to ground out to end the inning.
The Nationals didn’t threaten much more against deGrom, who retired 11 in a row following the Eaton homer. The Mets did threaten several more times against Scherzer, getting runners in scoring position in the third, fourth and fifth innings but never cashing in.
Scherzer had to work hard all night, but he kept making big pitches in big spots. He struck out Lagares and Tomas Nido with a man on second in the bottom of the fourth. He struck out Amed Rosario, J.D. Davis and Alonso in the fifth, all with runners on base.
The problem? Even though Scherzer had tossed five scoreless innings, his pitch count was already up to 98. He told the dugout he was good to return for the sixth, and he responded with a 1-2-3 frame on 11 pitches, then received handshakes as he returned to the dugout after a job well done.
“You just take it inning by inning,” he said, “try to execute pitches.”
“Scherzer was amazing,” Martinez said. “Exceeded the pitch count we thought he was going to have. He gave us a chance to win. And we just couldn’t close the deal.”
It’s been an agonizing challenge for the Nationals to get zeroes out of the majority of their bullpen all season, but the one guy they’ve been able to count on has been their closer. Turns out they couldn’t even count on him tonight.