With each base hit that dropped, each seemingly non-threatening crack of the bat that resulted in another hit or another run, Dan Haren seemed to shake his head a little more. By the time it was Ryan Mattheus’ turn on the mound six innings later, his shouts of frustration cut through the warm late August air, audible from the furthest reaches of Nationals Park.
Nothing went right for the Nationals in an 11-3 loss to the New York Mets that began poorly and only got worse as the game wore on. By night’s end, with the Reds beating the Rockies, the Nationals found themselves 7.5 games back in the wild card race.
It was a stark reminder for the Nationals, after two weeks of positivity and rebuilding hope, that their task remains tall. And the calendar is doing them no favors as days fall of it quickly.
“Obviously we know that we’re running out of time,” said center fielder Denard Span, who joined Ian Desmond as the only Nationals with a multi-hit game. “Each game that goes by, it’s getting even more and more detrimental (to) us.”
What to make of this Nationals team? Sunday will bring with it September and still they continue their maddening tapdance around the .500 mark (68-67), their playoff hopes resting within the slimmest of margin for error.
They ran off victories against inferior opponents with ease for the better part of the past two weeks. They made it seem, if not likely, at least not out of the realm of possibility that they could make a hard-charging finish and challenge for a wild card spot. They played better. They pitched well, hit well and played clean defense. There was a renewed energy about them.
They made it seem as though the team that spent most of June and July at or below the .500 mark was the impostor and that this recent version, devoid of the expectations and pressures they opened the year with, this is who they were.
Then they faced the Mets.
“It’s one of my worst nightmares, dropping a series to the Mets,” manager Davey Johnson said, allowing himself only a slight smile after the beatdown. “But we just need to turn it around, starting tomorrow. Just almost sweep out. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
“We definitely had in mind to come into the series and do what we did against Miami and, if not sweep them, at least win two out of three,” Span added. “To lose the first two, it’s definitely tough, but you’ve got to just turn the page and try to win tomorrow. That’s it. That’s where we are right now. We obviously know that we’re taking two steps backward in the standings.”
Saturday it was, as Johnson so aptly phrased it “a thousand little paper cuts” that did them in.
“They beat us in every aspect of the game,” Desmond said.
Haren allowed seven earned runs off nine hits — eight of which were singles — in 2.2 innings of work. They didn’t crush him. His struggles from the early part of the season didn’t seem to reappear. But he knew as much as anyone that it simply wasn’t his night with each ball that found a patch of grass instead of a glove.
“I tried to battle,” Haren said. “It seemed like everything they put in play was a hit. Literally, almost everything they put in play was a hit.
“Can’t go out there striking out everybody. That’s baseball. I’ve had a good stretch. Maybe I’ve had a little bit of luck. Today was just one of those days.”
The Mets sent 11 batters to the plate in a six-run third inning that featured seven hits and two walks — including one to Mets pitcher Zack Wheeler by Tanner Roark with the bases loaded.
“Everything that could go wrong in that third inning did,” Johnson said. “I tried to change the momentum. (Roark) pitched well after that, but the cat was out of the bag.”
Wheeler, in contrast, kept the Nationals at bay, allowing just two runs off five hits and a walk in 6.2 innings of work.
“You give a young guy, who in a tight game may have to deal with some nerves, you give him an eight-run lead and that kind of goes out the window,” said Desmond. “And then he’s got a 95 mph fastball which, with an eight-run lead, he may or may not decide to just pump heaters. It kind of messes with your mind a little bit. He’s a good young arm.”
With the Mets up 8-2 by the time he was summoned from the bullpen, Mattheus allowed the final three runs. After Anthony Rendon couldn’t get Eric Young on an infield single to third base to open the frame, three more hits and a walk followed.
So, once again, they turned their focus toward the next day. To trying to pick themselves back up and get back to work. To trying to salvage what’s left and make the best of it.
“What are we seven, eight games back with (27) to go?” Desmond said. “Keep on grinding until you’re mathematically eliminated.”