By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 10, 2010; D01
NEW YORK -- The Washington Nationals and New York Mets, connected by Amtrak, I-95 and grim expectations, will play 17 more times this season, meetings that will most likely determine which one of them finds solace in not finishing last. They figure to borrow components from Friday night's 8-2 Mets victory at Citi Field -- when the air was more crisp than the action.
The Nationals fired the opening dud in the season series after another starting pitcher burdened their bullpen. Garrett Mock allowed just two runs, but he also only lasted only 3 1/3 innings, requiring 84 pitches to record 13 outs, a direct assault on his oft-stated aim to enhance his efficiency this season.
Mock's was merely the latest brief outing by the Nationals' rotation. In four games, Nationals starters have thrown 16 innings, fewer than any other team, and posted a 9.56 ERA. Only Craig Stammen, who pitched five innings Thursday, has recorded an out past the fourth inning.
"That can't continue," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "That's not going to work. If your starters throw three to five innings, it will cause problems that you can't solve."
Again, the Nationals had to try to coax a win out of their bullpen, and not just the back end. Friday night, they could not. New York's Rod Barajas -- a catcher who had hit 92 home runs in 2,533 career at-bats before the game -- and Jeff Francoeur each blasted two home runs to left field, into a howling wind. Barajas's second, off Miguel Batista, snapped a 2-2 tie in the sixth, and Francoeur's two-run bomb, on the first pitch Tyler Walker threw in the seventh, effectively ended the competitive portion of the game.
The Nationals are carrying eight relievers, so the bullpen has not been overtaxed. But it has been exposed. "Anytime you're playing a ballgame, you want to get into a team's middle relief," Riggleman said. "That's what they're doing to us."
Mock's truncated start may have been the most exasperating yet. He spoke often this spring of his plan to become more aggressive. Last year, only eight pitchers who threw as many pitches as Mock needed more pitches per inning, and Mock recorded an out in the seventh inning in only one of his 15 starts. He identified inefficiency as the thing holding him back, and he was going to eliminate it.
On Friday, his first inning dragged for 17 minutes. Mock needed 29 pitches, only 14 of which were strikes. The defining at-bat came with two outs against David Wright, whom Mock started with two strikes. It was these precise situations in which Mock wanted to show off his newfound mentality. Any pitch could end the inning. Instead, he walked Wright, the final ball a fastball in the dirt, and used 15 more pitches before escaping.
Mock felt he had followed through on his pledge, but the conditions disallowed proper results. Stiff winds blew out to left field, so strong they even affected the pitches as they zipped from rubber to plate. Mock licked his fingers and moistened his hands, trying to find any way to gain traction with the ball.
"I'm not going to sit there and say it's the baseball's fault," Mock said. "But, I mean, I just couldn't really get a grip on it."
After one inning, Mock came into the dugout and talked to pitching coach Steve McCatty. "My hands are dry," Mock said.
"Hey," McCatty told him, "You've got to find a way."
"I'm not knocking him," McCatty said. "But you have to find a way to get through situations. Batista did fine. [Mets starter Mike] Pelfrey, he did fine. I don't like hearing stuff like that, because it makes it sound like an excuse. You're in the big leagues. You've got to find a way. It's not going to be perfect. It's not going to be 85 degrees every day and the wind is blowing in. You find a way to deal with situations."
Before his early finish, Mock allowed four hits, including the first home runs by Barajas and Francoeur, and, most damning, five walks. Only 44 of his 84 pitches were strikes. And yet, Mock left with the score tied.
Ian Desmond had laced a line-drive, two-RBI triple to left field in the second inning, giving the Nationals a 2-0 lead and himself 16 extra-base and 10 singles in 91 career at-bats.
Mock did not pitch long enough to preserve the lead, and the bullpen had too many innings in which to give it away. For now, the Nationals can find comfort in two things. The season is only four games old, and on Saturday, at least they get to play the Mets again.