By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010; D01
Just because the Washington Nationals have moved beyond wretched baseball as standard practice does not mean it will never surface. Manager Jim Riggleman called their 10-7 loss Thursday night to the New York Mets "a terrible ballgame." Afterward, he shared something close to that sentiment with his players. "I'll let you run with your imagination." Riggleman said.
Give the Nationals this much: They don't roll over, not even in their dreariest performances. But after their eighth-inning rally fizzled, the Nationals had to swallow an ugly loss to the New York Mets at Nationals Park before 23,612 that dropped them back to .500. The Nationals couldn't overcome the ineptitude that pockmarked most of the night, and they did not let one furious inning distract them from perhaps their worst performance this season.
"We can't play like that," rookie shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We're moving in the right direction. Any step backwards is five for us. We've got to keep on moving forward. Sometimes, you can't look at the positives. Sometimes, you've got to correct the negative. Hopefully we'll do that tomorrow."
Somehow, after trailing by nine runs, the Nationals actually sent Adam Dunn to the plate with a chance to tie the score in the eighth inning. But they had played some of their most unsightly baseball of the season for the first five innings.
Only their offense, which only struck late after an injury forced the Mets to rely on their bullpen for all 27 outs, could be absolved. Washington's starting pitcher lasted 4 1/3 innings. Its defense committed three errors. Its bullpen surrendered two earned runs. Maybe it was an omen when, during pregame batting practice, a flyball struck principal owner Mark Lerner between the eyes and opened a gash that required stitches.
Over the course of 162 games, a baseball team will have to absorb brutal losses and move to the next day. Thursday's calamities made that harder than usual.
"I can't let it go quite that easy," Riggleman said. "We just played terrible baseball. No excuses. I appreciate the effort we got. We didn't stop playing. We played hard. We just didn't play smart. It's little details of the game we like to take care of, and we didn't take care of tonight.
"I don't know if any of us could say we had a good ballgame. I think collectively each of us -- myself, the coaches, everybody -- will say, 'Man, I missed something today. I didn't do something right because I could have done more to help us play a better ballgame.' I don't think anybody will go home and feel too good about that game."
The Nationals still managed to make it a game, at least for a moment. After an RBI single by Cristian Guzmán and a bases-loaded walk to Ryan Zimmerman, up came Dunn. The thinned crowd stood. With the swing that could have tied the game, Dunn flied weakly to left field. The run tacked on by the Nationals in the ninth on an RBI groundout by Willie Harris was rendered moot.
"I don't think you take anything from that game," Dunn said. "That was just a bad-played game. For some reason, our focus wasn't there. We just didn't play well today."
For most of the game, it seemed like the Nationals wouldn't have a chance. For the first time this season, rookie Luis Atilano endured an implosive start, allowing six earned runs on nine hits and three walks.
The Mets loaded the bases with one out in the first inning, Atilano not helped by Desmond's drop of Dunn's high throw at second base. David Wright roped a double off the right-center field fence, emptying the bases and putting the Nationals in a 3-0 hole before many fans had walked in from the Metro.
"It wasn't only tough for me," Atilano said. "It was tough for the whole team."
Atilano settled, not allowing any runs for the next three innings, before the Mets unloaded in the fifth. Rod Barajas knocked Atilano out of the game with an RBI single that put the Mets ahead by six. When Tyler Walker emerged from the Nationals' bullpen, the game careened out of control.
Walker made an error on a sacrifice bunt, loading the bases. José Reyes looped a weak liner to third. Zimmerman took one step back and stumbled on the lip of the infield grass, allowing another run to score. When the damage finally stopped, the Mets had scored 10 runs and taken a nine-run lead.
A game chocked with bizarre moments opened with one. Mets starter John Maine walked Nyjer Morgan on five pitches to begin the game. Several members of the Mets' staffed visited Maine on the mound. Before the game, Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen noticed a lack of velocity while Maine threw in the bullpen. After Morgan's walk, Manager Jerry Manuel still believed Maine's velocity was diminished and that his delivery seemed off. Maine exited the game, and he plans to see a doctor Friday.
In from the bullpen trotted Raul Valdes, a left-handed reliever with a 2.66 ERA in 20 1/3 innings. Valdes allowed three runs in five-plus innings, striking out six.
Even when the Nationals started surging, puzzling base running subverted a comeback attempt. Iván Rodríguez floated too far off second base after a bases-loaded, two-RBI single by Harris. The Mets tagged him out, and the rally fizzled.
It was that kind of night for the Nationals. They could find comfort only in knowing they have another chance Friday.
"Anybody who watched the game knows that we didn't have any energy tonight," Desmond said. "And when we did, it was too late."