NEW YORK — In the slog that is a 162-game baseball season, the importance of the way a team starts the season often teeters on a high wire. A good start can propel them, a confidence builder they ride deep into the summer and, perhaps, to contention. A bad one could hurt.
Both outcomes could also be largely forgotten by the time the summer heat begins to fade and the playoffs become less of an abstract notion and more of a tangible extension to the season.
Currently walking that thin line are the Washington Nationals, who lost 2-0 to the New York Mets on Sunday to finish a 3-3 road trip through what is expected to be the two basement teams in their division.
“If you don’t start out hot, it doesn’t necessarily mean this is the way we’re going to perform all year,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche. “It can. You let it get that way where everybody starts pressing and we’ll look up in a couple months and be in a bad spot.
“We’ll continue to take the same approach that worked last year and it should even out. But yeah, this is unacceptable right now. Some pretty bad baseball.”
After 18 games, the Nationals’ body of work is wholly inconsistent.
Their record is 10-8. Their offense comes in bursts, but then hibernates. Their pitching has had good days and bad. Their defense, a trademark strength of the 2012 team, has committed a major league-leading 18 errors, 11 of them attributed to the left side of their infield.
On Sunday it was all of their ills that brought them trudging into the clubhouse following their third shutout of the season.
Jordan Zimmermann, Zach Duke and Henry Rodriguez pitched well. But Dillon Gee and a host of undistinguished Mets relievers held them to just four hits. They committed three errors.
And in the moment it looked as though they may still have a chance to win and smooth over all of those issues, at least for one more day, their most senior player — who’s usually hailed for his baseball smarts — tried to do too much.
With no outs in the eighth inning, runners on first and second and a left-hander on the mound who had just thrown six straight pitches out of the strike zone, Jayson Werth hacked at a 3-0 pitch and grounded into a double play. The Nationals’ final four batters of the game made outs.
“The situation got the best of me,” Werth said, sitting in a chair at his locker looking as pensive and dejected as he has all season. “Probably one of the dumber things I’ve done on the field in a while.
“Look no further than right here. That’s where the game was lost. We had a chance to win the game, but I feel like I pretty much blew it.”
It was the first time in the major leagues this season that a batter has grounded into a double play on a 3-0 count — and it happened only 11 times in 2012. It was surprising to players and coaches on both sides to see Werth do it, perhaps most of all to manager Davey Johnson, who said only, “I’m not going to go into that, OK?” It was a rare declined comment from Johnson when it comes to questions about game situations.
While some of his teammates tried to point out that the Nationals should have won the game elsewhere or in other ways, Werth wore the error.
“I was looking to pull something,” said Werth, who knew he’d be the only right-hander to face Scott Rice in a four-batter stretch and said he felt “convicted” in his aggressiveness to try and win the game. “I even moved up on the plate and I figured, given the situation, that he’d thrown seven straight balls, I felt like he was going to groove one and I felt like I could do damage.
“In that situation, you’ve got to let the game come to you, and I tried to go get the game. That was it.”
As they packed up in the visitors’ clubhouse at Citi Field, some lamenting missed opportunities from the week that had passed, they evaluated their team, knowing that six games at home against the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds awaited.
In most cases, they found themselves defending the talent in the room against what the results have shown to this point.
They are better, they said. They will be better.
“It’s totally fine,” outfielder Bryce Harper said. “It’s a long season and we’ve got a good team. I’m not frustrated, I’m not upset. It happens. We’re going to get going.”
“It’s early, [but] it’s not like we’re in the first series of the year,” LaRoche said. “When you look at 162 of ‘em, and this much talent, it just won’t last. We’ll go out there and have some really hot stretches where we just won’t be able to help it. The caliber of players we’ve got, it won’t last.”