The Nationals led 7-6, and finally the seesawing stopped. They had taken an early 3-0 lead on home runs from Ian Desmond and Harper off starter Jeremy Hefner. Gonzalez cruised into the fourth, then allowed a leadoff triple to David Wright and walked John Buck. Gonzalez nearly worked out of the jam when he induced a weak comebacker from Ike Davis and got Marlon Byrd to ground to Chad Tracy, who ensnared Wright in a rundown for the second out.
“You get one good pitch, down-and-away, get out of the inning with no damage,” Gonzalez said.
Instead, Gonzalez endured a meltdown. The next five batters reached on three singles and two walks. The Mets pulled ahead, 5-3, and Gonzalez, after throwing 41 pitches to escape the inning, would not throw another pitch. Without warning, Gonzalez had gone from pitching a gem to hitting the showers.
“There’s things you can’t explain,” Gonzalez said. “I was sitting there contemplating what happened. You’re dominating, and then all of a sudden. . . . ”
Another lead had disappeared, another ace had been dispatched and another slice of promise threatened to slip away. It is hard to need anything in April, but the Nationals needed a spark, a glimmer — something.
Jayson Werth drew a walk. That was something. Against left-hander Aaron Laffey, Harper fell behind in the count, taking a weak cut way in front of Laffey’s 85-mph fastball. He made an adjustment, took a ball, fouled off a strike and then smashed an opposite-field double to the left field corner.
The inning fell to LaRoche. He fell behind, 1-2, when he swung and missed at a fastball. Laffey tried to finish him off with another, but he left it over the plate’s heart. LaRoche uncorked his elegant swing and clobbered the pitch. The ball flew over the left-center field fence, and the Nats led, 6-5. When Harper crossed the plate, Werth greeted him with an emphatic double high-five.
“It just seemed like every one was playing their part,” Gonzalez said. “They see their starter going through a rough patch, they’re going to help him and they’re going to try to pick him up. That’s what a team is all about.”
The Nationals led, but their bullpen — which entered with an MLB-worst 5.70 ERA — needed to protect a one-run lead, possibly for five innings. Over two innings, Stammen faced six batters. He retired them all, struck out five and induced eight swing-and-misses in a span of 35 pitches. His two-seam fastball darted like a balloon running out of air. He put the Mets’ bats in a vise.
Once he left, the Nationals still had three more innings to hold on. They couldn’t keep the lead for one. In the seventh inning, Ryan Mattheus allowed a run on an infield single and John Buck’s double, but that was all the Mets could muster against four relievers.
“We haven’t really been getting it done so far this year,” Clippard said. “That’s a big part of why we’re going to be successful in the future. It was good to get in there and shut the door like we did.”
Harper, of course, was the one who opened it. The Nationals may have their problems through the first three weeks. But they also have Harper, and that may matter more than anything.