NEW YORK | On a cool September night when it seemed like baseballs were leaping out of Shea Stadium by the bucketful, perhaps the Washington Nationals should have been expecting a loss a lot sooner than they were.
Nothing about a slugfest with the National League East-leading New York Mets favors the Nationals, and yet their offense did its part, piling up eight runs and 12 hits to counter, however briefly, the Mets’ group of mashers.
But whatever encouragement the Nationals got from a feisty lineup that continued its late-season resurgence, they gave back in the form of a grisly night from left-hander John Lannan and a bullpen that tempted the Mets a few too many times.
After Lannan was removed, Washington’s bullpen gave up five runs in the five innings, following two extra-inning games in which the overworked group went a combined 12 innings.
“[Lannan] pitched behind in the count and not only him,” Nationals manager Manny Acta said. “The rest of those young kids, they picked the wrong lineup to pitch behind in the count. Those guys will make you pay if you come with that fastball right there on a 2-0 count.”
The 10-8 loss to the Mets ended with the familiar strains of mariachi music blasting through the Shea Stadium speakers as recently traded and suddenly reformed reliever Luis Ayala shut down his former team for his sixth save. It was just the fourth time Washington had lost in its last 13 games.
The brevity of Lannan’s outing (the three innings he worked were his fewest of the year) might have owed something to the fact that September call-ups have given manager Manny Acta a deeper bullpen and thus a quicker trigger. But it was clear early the left-hander would do little to inspire confidence.
In his last outing in New York on April 17, his sublime fastball command led to a career-high 11 strikeouts. Whatever reserve he had of it Tuesday night disappeared when he pitched from behind, and a potent Mets lineup punished him early.
They scored two runs off Lannan in the second inning and then hung four on him in the third, punctuating the inning with a mammoth homer from Carlos Delgado that flew 440 feet to center field.
“I made mistakes and got hurt with them,” Lannan said. “I felt fine today. I felt like I was locating my fastball pretty well, but in those situations where I was supposed to make a pitch, I didn’t make a pitch.”
But Acta’s decision to remove Lannan early girded the big inning that got Washington its first lead of the night.
Pinch hitter Alberto Gonzalez stroked one of six consecutive Nationals singles that, combined with two walks, led to a five-run fourth. Lastings Milledge finished the run with a base hit to center field that put Washington up 7-5.
It was the first time the Nationals had recorded six straight hits in more than three years. And it got them a lead that lasted all of 20 minutes.
The Mets came back with two runs in the fourth, setting off the kind of back-and-forth, batter-for-pitcher maneuvering usually reserved for the end of a game. It didn’t bode well for a Washington relief corps leaving pitches up in the strike zone most of the night.
”We just missed a lot of spots,” catcher Wil Nieves said. “When you face teams like these, you’ve got to keep the ball down, go in and out. If you don’t do it, you’re going to get hurt.”
By the fifth inning, the Nationals trotted out their fourth pitcher - one half of the total they used in 14 innings Sunday.
That total was up to five when Charlie Manning replaced Jason Bergmann in the sixth inning and six once Manning closed out the inning and ended a brief but torturous cameo where he served up back-to-back homers - to Carlos Beltran and Delgado - in the span of three pitches.
When the seventh-inning stretch came, after Mets reliever Scott Schoeneweis struck out Ryan Langerhans to win a matchup so German that the 50,382 in attendance should have been swilling beer out of steins, the two teams had run through a combined 10 pitchers and five pinch hitters.
It was the kind of attrition that favored the deeper Mets, and while New York’s offense took the lead for good off Washington’s relievers, its six relievers held the Nationals to just one earned run on four hits in the game’s final 5 2/3 innings.
“[Joe] Smith was the key,” Acta said. “He stopped us [in the sixth]. It was a tough night for pitchers. They’ve got a very good lineup. You’ve got to pitch ahead, make pitches, and we made way too many mistakes.”