First-inning mistakes doom Nats in loss to Mets (updated)

It takes an awful lot for the Nationals to win a baseball game these days. It takes excellent starting pitching. It takes timely hitting from a lineup that seems to only score in one inning per contest. It takes effective work from the majors’ least effective bullpen. And it takes clean defense, an occurrence most clubs can assume will be on display most nights but for this team represents the clear outlier.

The Nats pretty much can’t afford for any one of those four things to go wrong in order to win a game. They certainly can’t afford for two of them to go wrong.

And they most definitely can’t afford for two of them to go horribly wrong in the top of the first inning, as they did tonight during a 6-2 loss to the Mets that might as well be placed in a time capsule to explain to future generations just what the 2019 Nationals season was all about.

A missed double play opportunity by fill-in shortstop Wilmer Difo set the stage for disaster. Wilson Ramos’ grand slam off Jeremy Hellickson three batters later sealed the deal and left the crowd of 23,315 on a surprisingly chilly mid-May night grumbling before the home team had even stepped up to bat for the first time.

“Like I’ve said before: We’ve got to play clean baseball,” manager Davey Martinez said. “Got to give us a chance. That was a different game (if) we get out of that inning.”

On the heels of a 3-7 road trip that left this team at depths it had not experienced in eight years, the Nationals opened a critical homestand with yet another sour performance. They’ve now lost 14 of their last 19 and dropped to nine games under .500. They’ve scored a run in only 10 of their last 81 offensive innings.

Difo-Throws-at-Second-Blue-Sidebar.jpg“I know sometimes things aren’t working out for us, and we say it amongst ourselves,” center fielder Victor Robles said via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “But we have each other’s back and support each other and keep kind of gunning for each other. So there’s nothing else we can do.”

The critical moment tonight came only three at-bats into the game, when Hellickson got Robinson CanĂ³ to ground into what should have been a fairly routine, 4-6-3 double play to end the top of the first. But Difo’s turn was far from clean, his throw pulling emergency first baseman Gerardo Parra well off the bag. Though CanĂ³ initially was called out at first base, the Mets successfully challenged and in the process extended the inning.

“I didn’t realize that the runner’s probably not as fast as I expected him to be,” Difo said via Martinez. “I tried to rush the play, and I had more time. But that’s one of those unfortunate things that sometimes happens during a game.”

It’s happening a lot to the Nationals, though, especially their shortstops. As a group, they entered tonight with a minus-8 Defensive Runs Saved rating, which ranked ahead of only the Phillies (minus-9) and Mets (minus-13) among all major league clubs. Trea Turner is on track to return from the injured list later this week, and that will help. But in the meantime, Difo has to at least make the routine plays.

“We do extra drills,” Martinez said. “We take groundballs every day. Sometimes when a team’s struggling, you try to do a lot more. Just play the game. Really, all you’ve got to do is play the game. You’ve done it a million times. That’s a double play ball, 10 out of 10 times. Just play the game. Don’t make it hard on yourself. Just do the little things. Keep it simple.”

Hellickson, through no fault of his own, was forced to remain on the mound after the Difo misplay. But what happened next was entirely through fault of his own. After Pete Alonso singled up the middle, Hellickson walked Michael Conforto to load the bases. And when Ramos belted a changeup deep to left, the veteran right-hander and the Nationals were in an early 4-0 hole, all of the runs officially earned.

Yes, Difo’s inability to complete the double play made everything that followed possible. But Hellickson’s inability to record another out until four runs had crossed the plate was just as damaging to the Nationals.

“Just got to move onto the next guy when things aren’t going your way,” he said. “Just got to keep the ball in the yard. It was a pretty good pitch. Just got extended on it. But again, just got to keep the ball in the yard right there.”

Those four runs would hold up for quite some time, thanks to Noah Syndergaard’s dominance of a Nationals lineup that has had a devil of a time producing at the plate. Two days ago it was Hyun-Jin Ryu carrying a no-hitter into the eighth inning at Dodger Stadium. Tonight it was Syndergaard carrying a no-hitter into the sixth inning on South Capitol Street.

Difo, in a small gesture of atonement for his defensive miscue earlier, finally broke through with the Nationals’ first hit, a leadoff single to right in the sixth. And Robles continued his surprising mastery of Syndergaard with a two-run homer (his third of the season off the Mets right-hander) later in the inning to end the shutout bid.

But the Nats still trailed 5-2 after all that and needed to mount a late rally to have any chance of getting this critical homestand off on the right foot.

They weren’t able to pull that off. And so, yet again, they were left to stew over a loss that was epitomized by one seemingly small mistake early that turned into something far bigger.

“Yeah, it feels that way right now,” Difo said. “Especially since the team seems to be struggling a little bit. I think as a team, we’re fine. But those errors have been costing us big lately. What we need to try to do is take a step back, calm down and try to eliminate those errors, because they’ve been hurting us lately. And things will turn for us.”

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