By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 14, 2007
NEW YORK, April 13 -- Stack up the New York Mets' lineup, from Jose Reyes at the top to Jose Valentin at the bottom, and put it up against the group that the Washington Nationals brought to Shea Stadium Friday night. Mix the names around, come up with different orders, and the conclusion could always be this: Maybe the Nationals were fortunate to play a competitive game, even if it ended up in a very predictable 3-2 loss.
"That's a tough, tough lineup," said Nationals reliever Ryan Wagner, who gave up the tiebreaking run in the seventh inning on a ground-ball single from the man who epitomizes the Mets' depth and danger -- 48-year-old Julio Franco.
In frigid conditions Friday night, with a 26-mph wind swirling consistently throughout half-full Shea, the fact that these two franchises are in vastly different points in their development was stark. On the mound for the Nationals was John Patterson, the 29-year-old who was once a top prospect and is now trying to, finally, establish himself as his club's No. 1 starter. He was opposed by rookie Mike Pelfrey, the guy Patterson used to be, the Mets' fifth starter who regularly touches 96 on the radar gun -- a prospect unlike anyone in the Nationals' system.
"They're a great ballclub," Nationals Manager Manny Acta said, and he knows, because he served as the Mets' third base coach for the previous two seasons.
Reyes has become one of the most disruptive offensive forces in the National League, a water bug in any opponent's ointment. He scored the Mets' first run by advancing to third on a wild pitch, then walked and stole the base that led to their second run.
Valentin, meantime, hits in the spot reserved for the club's weakest hitter, yet he launched 18 homers a year ago, a total that would have ranked fourth on a Washington club that featured Alfonso Soriano. In between those two lie some of the league's most dangerous hitters, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and David Wright. Finding a soft underbelly is impossible.
"They have so many weapons," Acta said. "They can do so many things, and that's why you can't let them off the hook. You can't expect to beat that club 2-1 every single day."
So what played out Friday was hardly surprising given the facts that were printed on every lineup sheet in the building. The Nationals are a struggling club made up of struggling parts. Even as Patterson and three relievers controlled the Mets by allowing only five hits, New York continued to put pressure on in every way possible.
The Nationals, in turn, loaded the bases three times against Pelfrey. Their output? A double-play ball from catcher Brian Schneider that scored a run, then a two-out single from Chris Snelling that brought home the only other tally. The other situations: Nothing.
"If you're going to win ballgames," said Schneider, now hitting .125, "you need to get the job done there."
They didn't, and they haven't. Washington is now 1 for 13 with the bases loaded this season, one measly single. And that prevented them from breaking open the game for Patterson, who came in with a 9.35 ERA after his first two outings.
The abhorrent conditions didn't help, but Patterson found some movement on his fastball, and his biggest mistake might have been the wild pitch that allowed Reyes to move to third in the first inning; he later scored on a groundout. But in the sixth, with Reyes on second and one out, Acta came out to remove him in favor of lefty Micah Bowie. Patterson had thrown only 76 pitches.
"It was cold," Patterson said. "I was tightening up. I didn't want to put the team in a situation of me trying to be a hero or anything else. We're trying to win games. I felt like I was going as far as I could go at that point, and hand it over to the guys that were fresh and could go out there and maybe contribute a little better than I could at that point."
Bowie struck out Beltran, but Delgado rapped a pitch to left to score Reyes, tying the game. And in the seventh, the Mets won it, getting a leadoff single and stolen base from Wright, a two-out walk to Valentin, and Franco's grounder up the middle off Wagner.
When Mets closer Billy Wagner finished off the Nationals with a 1-2-3 ninth, New York celebrated. The team's new ballpark is under construction just beyond left-center field at Shea. The Nationals, too, have a new park under being built, one that's much further along than the one in Queens. It is, perhaps, the only construction project in which the Nationals lead the Mets.