By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Avert your eyes, fans of the New York Mets, because what is happening on the eastern edge of Capitol Hill isn't fit for anyone who wanted the team from Flushing to saunter into the postseason, as they appeared ready to do all of a week ago. But that was before they were swept by the Philadelphia Phillies -- and long before they arrived at their new house of horrors, RFK Stadium.
The Washington Nationals will close the almost 46-year-old stadium to baseball this weekend, but before they do, they apparently want to cause misery to all those who enter. Last night, they were down four runs before they grabbed a bat, yet beat the Mets 9-8, the second night in a row in which they had come back from such a deficit and slung mud all over the race for the National League East title.
"Back-to-back nights, it's pretty incredible," Manager Manny Acta said, "considering we have a very tough time scoring five runs a game."
Given the opportunity to grab an envelope and a stamp in order to mail it in the last two weeks, the Nationals have declined, instead taking the countless openings provided by the Mets and coming through with more runs in consecutive games at RFK, 21, than they have in any two-game span since baseball returned here in 2005.
In the words of veteran Mets outfielder Moises Alou, "The Nationals looked like a very inspired team."
Which is precisely the opposite of the clench-jawed Mets. The Nationals' second comeback win in a row -- they trailed 4-0 before winning 12-4 on Monday -- was the Mets' fifth straight loss, a streak even a closed-door pregame meeting couldn't stop. The game-turning moment came on Ronnie Belliard's go-ahead three-run homer off Mets starter John Maine that capped an improbable five-run fifth, the latest blow to a pitching staff that appears in tatters.
But it wasn't over until closer Chad Cordero allowed a run in the ninth and put the tying run 90 feet from home plate before striking out pinch hitter Ruben Gotay, then twirling around in delight.
"My heart was pumping," Cordero said. "My mind was racing."
What, then, must be happening to the Mets? They pounced on Nationals rookie right-hander Joel Hanrahan for four runs in the first, and appeared ready to vanquish the demons that had visited them over the weekend and Monday night. But even with Hanrahan's putrid results -- he has now allowed 29 base runners in his last three starts, all while getting 29 outs, and his ERA is up to 6.45 -- the Nationals figured there was time.
"Like Manny said all year long, 'Play hard nine innings,' " Belliard said. "It's a long way."
For the two previous seasons, Acta served as the third base coach for the Mets. But he has dismissed the notion that he gains satisfaction from beating his old club. He even tossed aside the idea that he relishes playing spoiler.
"I'll tell you what I'm playing for: I don't want to finish last," Acta said.
With a three-game lead over last-place Florida, Acta is managing each game as if he's in the race -- turning to eight relievers last night, playing matchups against Mets Manager Willie Randolph before the late innings arrive. Monday night, he had to remind his players that the team in the opposite dugout was in a pennant race, and it was their duty to provide the stiffest competition possible. Last night, there were no reminders.
"They already have grasped the concept that it's a nine-inning ballgame," Acta said. "Don't panic."
The panic, by now, is left for the visitors, who have one more game at RFK to try to end this slide. To do that, they will have to get far better pitching.
Handed leads of 4-0 and 5-1, Maine allowed the Nationals to peck away. But even when Washington reliever Winston Abreu, who hadn't pitched in six days, allowed two runs in the fifth to put the Mets up 7-3, there had to be some uneasiness in the Mets' dugout, because there is uneasiness throughout the clubhouse.
Then came the fifth. Maine gave up RBI singles to Wily Mo Pe¿a and Austin Kearns to make it 7-5. But it grew humiliating when Belliard smoked the first pitch he saw deep to left field.
"I was just trying to hit a fly ball," Belliard said.
It sailed out, and somehow the Nationals led 8-7. After D'Angelo Jimenez's pinch-hit homer off reliever Scott Schoeneweis in the sixth -- another sign the Mets appear doomed this week -- it was left to Cordero to protect a two-run lead in the ninth.
He quickly erased the first two batters, striking out Carlos Beltran and getting Lastings Milledge to line out. But then, some problems: two-out singles to Shawn Green, Paul Lo Duca and Jeff Conine, the last of which made it 9-8.
"I felt good," Cordero said. "I just . . . I don't know."
That, precisely, could be the sentiment from the Mets' clubhouse. Cordero fell behind Gotay 3-0, but then fed him fastballs. He fouled off two at 3-2, but then ran the last one past him at 90 mph. With that, he celebrated two straight games to impact the race.
"For us," Cordero said, "it's a pride thing."