NEW YORK — Matt Harvey stood on the mound at Citi Field Friday night, and for seven innings he hurled his pitches at the Washington Nationals’ much-maligned offense like the fire-breathing dragon he has become. He peppered them with fastballs, mystified them with breaking pitches and toyed with the majority of their lineup for the better part of two hours.
After three innings without a hit allowed, it was fair to wonder if this might be the night the New York Mets’ otherworldly ace had the stuff to pull off a certain feat. After four it was fair to wonder if the Nationals’ thought so, too.
“No,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, whose solo homer in the fifth broke up Harvey’s perfect game and whose RBI-double in the ninth won it for the Nationals, 6-4.
“This morning when I woke up I thought he had no-hit stuff.”
The Nationals’ script to this point in the season made it seem as though the game would continue on in a familiar fashion. An offensive team searching for a breakout runs into one of the best starters in the National League for the second straight day. Oh, well. Tough luck. Try to get ‘em next time.
They did not see it that way.
“All we wanted to do was just stay close,” manager Davey Johnson said. Stay close, and perhaps when the Mets removed Harvey around 100 pitches — as they’ve been wont to do this season — an opportunity would be there for the taking.
Stay close, and maybe their luck, which, along with widespread underperformance, has been rotten more often than not this season, would change. Stay close, and who knows what could happen.
It might’ve been a metaphor for the Nationals’ hopes for a season that has gone little the way they’d expected to this point. Stay close. Sometimes that’s all you need.
“That might have been our biggest win of the year right there,” Johnson said late Friday night, after he’d watched his team score five runs in the eighth and ninth innings off the Mets’ bullpen to push them, once again, over the .500 mark. It was a sentiment many of his players shared.
“This is probably the biggest game of the year for the team,” said lefty Ross Detwiler who allowed three of the Mets’ runs in five innings, though only two were earned.
It happened almost immediately after Harvey had taken his seat in the Mets’ dugout. As if there was a weight lifted from the Nationals’ collective shoulders the minute he descended the mound for the final time.
Roger Bernadina greeted the first reliever the Mets tried after Harvey departed, David Aardsma, with a base hit. Two batters and one reliever later, Denard Span stroked a two-out double off lefty Josh Edgin to keep the inning alive. Anthony Rendon walked.
Suddenly Harvey’s victory was on the brink of extinction. And the Nationals salivated at what they knew came next.
Ryan Zimmerman strode to the plate with the bases loaded in the eighth inning and a familiar face on the mound in Brandon Lyon. In his career, Zimmerman had seen Lyon five times. He’d reached base every single time.
“There’s nobody else on this team, including myself, who I’d want up in that situation more than him,” Desmond said. “He’s made a career at doing damage in situations like that.”
“When Zim comes up to the plate in a big situation like that, you know he’s got a really good chance at it, probably a better chance than anybody else,” Detwiler added. “So you feel really good about it.”
He watched a slider go by, and then stroked an 88-mph fastball into left center field. Tie ballgame.
“I’m in the driver’s seat right there,” Zimmerman said. “It wasn’t a bad slider he threw on the first pitch. It was a decent slider. But once he misses there, I know he doesn’t want to miss again, because then he’s really behind with the bases loaded and nowhere to go. As a hitter, that’s a spot you want to be in.”
Harvey faced 24 batters in his seven innings of work against the Nationals. In trying to get the final six outs for him, the Mets’ bullpen faced half that many in two innings.
For weeks the Nationals have talked about taking small steps. About miniscule progress. Having better at-bats, playing cleaner games. Up until this point, it’s left them largely tiptoeing around the mark of mediocrity.
But they were energized Friday night. They watched Drew Storen pitch a spotless ninth and felt, at least for a moment, that the dominance they experienced on so many occasions in 2012 had made an appearance.
Harvey was nearly untouchable. But they still beat his team.
“Just the way we finished that game, that was the key,” Johnson said. “Everybody had good at-bats.”
“(Being down three, being on the road, having lost Thursday) it’s easy to just kind of fold up and feel sorry for yourself,” Storen said. “We kept battling. That’s stuff we did last year. That’s what’s fun about it. That’s exciting. Especially on the road here. It’s a big win for us.”