NEW YORK - The Nationals came to Flushing at the start of the week believing they had an opportunity to get their season back on track with a four-game series against a Mets club in complete disarray and with a manager in danger of being fired.
They left town this afternoon having been swept in embarrassing fashion, having fallen to depths this franchise hasn’t experienced in nine years and with serious questions about the status of their own embattled manager, who let all of his frustrations out after getting ejected in the eighth inning of this afternoon’s fiasco.
And all that came before his team put together a stunning rally to take the lead in inspiring fashion, only to blow said lead in even more disastrous (yet predictable) fashion.
It’s not even the simple fact the Nationals just dropped four in a row to the Mets, capped by today’s 6-4 loss at Citi Field. It’s the manner in which they did it, with a bullpen that imploded in spectacular fashion, a group of position players that could not make the plays required of major league fielders nor run the bases efficiently, and a lineup that squandered opportunity after opportunity with teammates in scoring position.
“You can’t put a blame on one thing,” manager Davey Martinez said. “This is, I’ve always said, this is a team thing. And when we lose, we lose together. And when we win, we win together. And that’s the bottom line.”
The bottom line also includes this: If you drew up a worst-case scenario for this series before it began Monday, you couldn’t have concocted a story this outrageous.
The Nationals are 19-31, sitting 12 games below the .500 mark for the first time since the final day of the 2010 season. Only the worst-in-baseball Marlins sit below them in the National League, and Miami will come to D.C. this weekend riding a six-game winning streak. (The Nationals have yet to produce a three-game winning streak this season.)
“A lot of games left, a lot of games,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “I tell people that all the time. When you get off to a bad start, it just gets scrutinized more than ever, because that’s the way you start the season. But it’s all about how you finish. We play a lot of teams I think we are capable of beating. We are a really good ballclub, and I think we have a lot of games left. If it’s still the same way in October, we’ll talk again.”
The powers that be, however, can’t wait until October to consider the kind of major changes they never wanted to have to consider but now must over Memorial Day weekend. Publicly and privately, team officials and players alike have expressed legitimate support for Martinez.
“He’s a hell of a manager,” Dozier said after this game. “I got his back any day.”
But facts are facts, and Martinez’s clubs now own a combined 101-111 record since his hiring last year.
If the Nationals were simply losing games in nondescript fashion, Martinez might survive the wrath. But they continue to lose games via all conceivable manner of fundamental mistakes, in the field, on the bases, at the plate. And today’s game represented a new low point.
The Nationals put a man in scoring position in each of the first five innings, leaving Mets starter Steven Matz constantly trying to pitch his way out of trouble. They did not score in any of those five innings, going 0-for-9 with four called strikeouts, two double plays and two groundouts to the left side that failed to advance a runner.
“We’ve just got to move the ball,” Martinez said, repeating a mantra he has been espousing for weeks. “We talk about this all the time: Cut down on the strikeouts, put the ball in play. A ground ball would’ve gotten us two runs. We’ve got to get better at that.”
Even when they finally broke through in the top of the sixth, the Nationals still shot themselves in the foot in the process. Dozier’s push bunt caught the Mets by surprise, and as they kicked the ball around, Juan Soto came around to score from second. But Dozier, already gifted two bases on a bunt, tried to catch Matz napping and make it all the way to third. He was thrown out, which prevented him from having a chance to add on a run after that.
“I like to put pressure on the opposing team,” Dozier said. “I kept just walking out about halfway. Matz had his head down with the ball. And I quickly realized I’m not as fast as I used to be, and he made a really good play. I think it was a smart play. Just a really good execution by him.”
The Nationals defense then handed the lead to their opponents with a couple of bad sequences in the fifth and sixth innings. Yan Gomes’ throwing error on Carlos Gómez’s stolen base attempt allowed Gómez to get into position to score on Juan Lagares’ sacrifice fly. One inning later, Gomes couldn’t block a Stephen Strasburg curveball and let it slip between his legs, and though it was scored a wild pitch the catcher’s inability to knock it down put the Mets in position to score the go-ahead run on a sacrifice fly. And then to score an insurance run on Wilson Ramos’ rare infield single, in which the slow-footed catcher beat Trea Turner’s off-balance throw from deep in the hole at short.
Down 3-1 and looking lifeless, the Nationals let their frustrations boil over in the top of the eighth, when Howie Kendrick was ejected after getting called out by plate umpire Bruce Dreckman on a check-swing without deferring to the first base ump. That set off Martinez, who also was ejected by Dreckman and then began letting it all out. He kicked dirt. He slammed his hat to the ground. He got in Dreckman’s face.
And then Martinez stormed off the field and down the dugout steps, his team on the verge of another embarrassing loss that might leave his job in jeopardy.
“(Kendrick) didn’t swing, to me. He didn’t,” Martinez said. “And all (Dreckman) had to do was ask for help. If the first base umpire says he swung, then so be it. But to make a call like that ... he’s got a better angle on the swing than the (plate) umpire.”
What happened next? Of course the Nationals rallied. They got a two-out RBI single from Gomes. Then they got a two-out, two-strike, two-run single from Gerardo Parra and suddenly had themselves a 4-3 lead as the crowd of 29,962 at Citi Field booed the home team.
But if you’ve paid even scant attention to the Nationals this season, you know what happened next. Trying to protect a slim lead in the bottom of the eighth, a member of the bullpen blew it in mind-blowing fashion. Wander Suero, despite striking out the more dangerous Todd Frazier and Pete Alonso with the tying run in scoring position, then served up a three-run homer to Gómez (who entered the game batting .077 with one RBI) on a 1-2, two-out pitch to flip this wacko baseball game back on its head again.
“I was thinking of surprising him with a fastball on the outside corner, my cutter,” Suero said via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I had thrown to him yesterday, and I threw him a curveball. And I figured in the back of my mind that he was trying to look for the same pitching sequence. So I was trying to surprise him with that cutter.”
Yes, the Nationals battled, like they always do. But they lost in unsightly fashion with a late meltdown, like they also so often do.
“Any loss that you take is tough to digest,” Kendrick said. “If we’re losing early, late, whatever. Losing’s losing.”
And so now, as they head home with tail between their legs, the ball is now in the hands of those who make this franchise’s most important decisions. Because some important decisions appear to be looming.
“Things are going to change. Things are going to change,” Martinez said, referring to the outcome of games, not his job. “And I know that. So we just got to keep pounding away, keep playing baseball. There’s good players in that clubhouse, really good players. We’ll turn things around.”