NEW YORK - They’d never admit it publicly, but the Nationals had to arrive at Citi Field this afternoon, see the utter chaos taking place across the way in the Mets clubhouse, and think to themselves this was shaping up to be a good opener to a four-game series that could help jumpstart their own ragged season.
And then they dug themselves into an early hole and weren’t able to climb all the way out of it in time, ultimately trudging off the field with a 5-3 loss that really felt like a blown opportunity.
The Mets may have been riding a five-game losing streak, with star outfielder Yoenis Céspedes (already on the injured list) fracturing his ankle while at his Florida ranch, Robinson Canó benched for not hustling over the weekend during a sweep at Marlins Park and general manager Brodie Van Wagenen calling an afternoon press conference to declare that embattled manager Mickey Callaway will remain in his position “for the foreseeable future.”
None of that mattered on the field. The Mets got early home runs from Amed Rosario and Pete Alonso, opened up a 4-0 lead on Patrick Corbin and then rode a piecemeal pitching staff to victory over a Nationals club that desperately wanted to get this key stretch of the season off on a positive note.
“You start the game, and you think you’ve got a really good chance to win it,” manager Davey Martinez said. “But, hey, they came out and swung the bats. They hit two home runs off a really good pitcher.”
After enduring through a bear of a schedule in recent weeks, the healthier-by-the-day Nationals now have eight straight games against these Mets and the MLB-worst Marlins. They aren’t going to get a better opportunity to finally get hot than this.
But it didn’t happen tonight, even though they made it interesting late.
The Nationals cut the deficit to 4-2 in the fourth, then 4-3 in the eighth when Juan Soto singled home Anthony Rendon with a nice piece of two-strike hitting against lefty Daniel Zamora. But they couldn’t push across the tying run in the top of the eighth and then watched relievers Joe Ross and fresh-off-the-IL Tony Sipp combine to surrender a key insurance run in the bottom of the inning to extend the deficit back to two.
They did give it one more try in the ninth, putting the tying runner on base with nobody out. But Mets closer Edwin Díaz retired Kurt Suzuki, Trea Turner and Adam Eaton in order to end the game and leave the Nationals an astounding 2-14 in series openers this season. They’re 17-14 in all other games.
“There’s no excuse, but our travel days haven’t been the easiest,” said Eaton, noting the team’s charter train from D.C. didn’t arrive at Penn Station until 4:30 a.m. Monday. “Again, there’s no excuse. I’m trying to make stuff up to make it sound like there’s a reason for it, but there’s no reason for it. We just have to come ready to play right out of the gate and take game one, and we haven’t done that.”
Corbin had already faced the Mets three times in the season’s first seven weeks, pitching effectively in each of them but especially last week in D.C. when he allowed one run and four hits over eight superb innings, striking out 11 in the process.
Four batters into this game, though, the script already had been flipped. Rosario drilled an 0-2 fastball just over the center field wall to get the Mets on the board - the 21st home run Nationals pitchers have surrendered on 0-2 pitches since the start of the 2018 season, seven more than any other major league staff - and then Alonso added a no-doubter to left off a 1-2 fastball.
“First inning, I just left two fastballs (over the plate),” Corbin said. “One was right down the middle, the other came back over to the middle. Just a couple mistakes there. They had two good swings. I just was frustrated with location there.”
Already down 2-0, Corbin’s struggles continued during a laborious first two trips through the New York lineup. He walked two batters in the bottom of the third and saw each come around to score, one on a soft grounder past a shaded Turner at shortstop, one on a double by Carlos Gómez (his first as a Met since 2007).
His pitch count a whopping 71 after three innings, Corbin was destined for a shorter start than anyone in a Nationals uniform expected at the beginning the evening. To his credit, he retired the last seven batters he faced - four via strikeout - but he was pulled after the fifth, having thrown 98 total pitches. (Martinez said they planned all along to try to keep the lefty, who averaged 111 pitches his previous three starts, under 100 tonight.)
“He’s been up over 100 quite a few times,” Martinez said. “If he gets into the seventh inning at 100 pitches, great. But he worked really hard to get the outs he got today, and we thought that was good.”
Corbin’s short start put some added stress on the Nats bullpen, but the real stress was on the Nats lineup, which had to be anticipating a big night at the plate against the Mets’ starter but didn’t get it. Only five days ago, the Nationals pounded Wilmer Font for five runs in only 2 2/3 innings. Tonight, they went scoreless in their first three innings against the nondescript right-hander before finally breaking through in the fourth.
The most production came from Rendon, who drew a pair of walks but more importantly drilled an 0-1 pitch from Font to left for a leadoff home run in the fourth. It was Rendon’s team-leading ninth homer of the season, his third in four games.
The Nationals also got a much-needed RBI single from Yan Gomes, whose batting average was fast approaching the Mendoza line, but that’s all they got against Font. And as was the case last week, they got nothing in multiple innings against reliever Drew Gagnon.
And though they followed their usual script and gave themselves a chance to come back late, they again couldn’t finish it off.
“Making the pitch when the pitch counts, and hitting the ball where they ain’t is the name of the game,” Eaton said. “And we haven’t done that very well.”