NEW YORK — Late Friday night, as New York Mets fans streamed out of Citi Field pondering a game that was lost as soon as Matt Harvey exited, the Washington Nationals were celebrating a comeback. It might’ve been “the biggest win of the year,” in the words of their manager — a sentiment shared by multiple players.
The Nationals’ never-ending search for momentum and consistency in the win column had dragged until the final weekend in June. But, at least slightly, it seemed the thought had crept into their collective minds again: maybe this was the win that would spur them. Maybe 10 more would follow.
The Nationals lost 5-1 to the Mets Saturday afternoon under a brilliantly sunny New York sky by making far too many defensive mistakes and allowing Dillon Gee to continue his confounding mastery over them. They offered little help to rookie Taylor Jordan, a big right-hander making his major league debut, by committing three errors and giving him little run support.
They returned to a .500 record for the 18th time this season, ensuring that they’d go the entire month of June without ever being more than two games above or below that sea-level mark. They haven’t been more than two games over or under .500 since May 19.
“You can’t explain it,” said manager Davey Johnson. “It was an uplifting game last night, and today was a downer. Tip your hat to Gee, he pitched a good ballgame. So did our guy. But that’s just baseball. It’s a long season.”
For the Nationals, though, this infuriating tapdance has seemingly left them sprinting in quicksand.
Sunday afternoon, the Nationals will play their 81st game of the season, the mathematical halfway point of the grind that is the baseball schedule. And with half a year’s body of work, they are what they are: .500. Despite the expectations, despite the proclamations, the Nationals have won no more games than they’ve lost.
“It just kind of shows you that each game is completely individual and it doesn’t really matter (what happened the night before),” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “I think last night’s win was great, but that doesn’t really get us anything today. We all came in today ready to play, just like we did yesterday.”
Perhaps no player could speak to that more than Zimmerman. The hero in the Nationals’ 6-4 victory over the Mets on Friday, Zimmerman committed two costly fielding errors on Saturday and the Mets gave him little chance to make up for it at the plate, walking him in three of four at-bats.
Jordan, a 2009 draft pick of the Nationals whose development was put on pause after September 2011 Tommy John surgery, had 20 members of his family in attendance at Citi Field as they came in from Florida, Colorado and New York to see his debut. Outwardly, at least, he showed little signs of being overwhelmed by the moment.
Armed with what Nationals director of player development Doug Harris called a “power sinker” and a four-seamer, Jordan started the game throwing it almost exclusively. But he was unhappy with his command, and began to rely on his strong changeup and his slider more.
“I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I was going to be,” Jordan said. “Just had a lot of trouble commanding my fastball, for the most part. Wished I would’ve threw more strikes.”
Jordan earned high praise from Johnson and his teammates for his 4 1/3 innings of work in which he allowed three runs — but only one earned — on five hits and two walks. Two of the three runs were unearned because of errors by his defense in a day that was sloppy in places that didn’t appear in the box score as well.
The first error came on a hard ground ball by Marlon Byrd at Zimmerman to open the fourth. Byrd eventually scored the Mets’ first run, tying the game after the Nationals had just secured a one-run lead.
The second happened an inning later on a calamitous play in which Zimmerman couldn’t handle another hard-hit ball by Byrd. Shortstop Ian Desmond was there to back up the play, but then Desmond tried to make an aggressive play to get Daniel Murphy rounding the bag. The throw hit Murphy, squirted away from Zimmerman, and before Jordan could look up he was down 2-1 and there was a runner on second base.
“They’re plays that I should make,” Zimmerman said. “Just unfortunate. Kind of tough plays, but I feel bad. Taylor threw the ball well and pitched great. Those two affected the outcome for him. It was good see him come up here. It didn’t really look like he was nervous at all. Just a tough break for him.”
They were made tougher by the fact that the Nationals’ offense stalled out yet again on a pitcher who other teams seem to have no trouble tackling. Gee has now made three starts against the Nationals this season and held them to two earned runs. Against Washington, he has a 0.96 ERA. Against every other team he’s faced, that number is 5.55.
The Nationals put baserunners on in every inning against Gee. Only once, on an RBI-single by Kurt Suzuki, did they score.
“I think it’s more us,” Desmond said. “This is no knock on him, but I think it’s more us. Maybe being a little too aggressive or not aggressive enough. One of the two.”
“He made good pitches,” Johnson said. “He’s an aggressive pitcher, comes right at you.”
“We were just a little bit flat,” he added. “But it’s just another day.”