Washington Nationals fall to New York Mets, 9-5, as Craig Stammen struggles

Ike Davis rounds the bases after a two-run homer in the third inning off Craig Stammen, background, part of an early barrage that put New York up 8-0. Ryan Zimmerman drove in four runs for Washington.
Ike Davis rounds the bases after a two-run homer in the third inning off Craig Stammen, background, part of an early barrage that put New York up 8-0. Ryan Zimmerman drove in four runs for Washington. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 5, 2010

Craig Stammen became a temporary minor leaguer this year not because the Washington Nationals doubted his ability, but because he showed the full extent of his talent so infrequently. At his best, he could stymie an offense deep into the game. At his worst, he could leave the game before the beer vendor's first tray turned warm. The Nationals could never be sure which version they had sent to the mound.

In a 9-5 loss to the New York Mets, Stammen's mess of a start squandered both his personal momentum and his team's. On Saturday, the Nationals had played their most thrilling game of the season and this past Tuesday Stammen had returned to the majors with one of his best starts. On Sunday before 29,234 at Nationals Park, Stammen lasted 3 1/3 innings and allowed seven earned runs.

"We know what's in there," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "He's had trouble putting a couple together. It hasn't been as bad as the numbers say for Craig, but certainly we know there's more there."

A day after their first ninth-inning comeback of the season, the Nationals settled for a series split despite Ryan Zimmerman's home run, three hits and four RBI. The Nationals fell behind 8-0 after four innings and eventually brought the tying run into the on-deck circle in the ninth inning, forcing the Mets to use their closer.

Speaking with his team afterward, Riggleman focused on what his team had done well. But they had been undone long before by Stammen's start.

"It wasn't very good," Stammen (2-3) said. "Obviously, that's the reason why we lost. Move on."

Stammen's prior outing made Sunday's meltdown all the more baffling. In Atlanta, in his first start since a recall from Class AAA Syracuse, Stammen surrendered two runs in 7 1/3 innings. On Sunday, 11 of the 21 batters Stammen faced reached base -- eight hits, three walks. His ERA for the season rose to 5.73.

Afterward, Stammen met in an office with pitching coach Steve McCatty for 20 minutes. McCatty instructed Stammen not about his physical ability or mechanics, but about his mental approach. Stammen, McCatty told him, had not been aggressive enough and he had abandoned his game plan. His conviction in peppering the lower half of the strike zone with cutters and sinkers, crucial to his success, had gone missing.

"My pitches didn't look a whole lot different, did they?" Stammen said. "That's been the thing of the whole season. I've pitched well one game, not pitched well another. We've got to figure out a solution to that.

"It's very frustrating. Once you feel like you've figured you're in the right mind-set, you're throwing the right way, you feel like you can duplicate. And I go out here like I did today. I didn't really duplicate it."

Stammen allowed at least one run in every inning he pitched as the Nationals fell into the 8-0 hole. Jason Bay scored two in the first with an RBI triple. Ike Davis blasted a two-run home run in the third. Angel Pagán doubled to lead off the fourth, and two batters later, David Wright ended Stammen's day with a bloop single.

The Mets had just about buried the Nationals with their first five innings, which had the look of a Zip code -- 2 1 2 3 0, the scoreboard showed. It took the Nationals one inning to nearly surge into the game and then fall back out of it, to prove what their offense is capable of and why it can sometimes be so impotent.

Hisanori Takahashi flummoxed the Nationals for five innings, allowing just two hits. Suddenly, they solved him. Nyjer Morgan walked and Cristian Guzmán singled. Zimmerman crunched a 2-0, 89-mph fastball over the right field fence, giving Washington its first three runs and starting his campaign to become the final player voted into the All-Star Game.

With the bases cleared, the Nationals restarted their rally. Adam Dunn smoked a single to right and knocked Takahashi out of the game. Josh Willingham dribbled an infield single to short, and Elmer Dessens hit Michael Morse with a pitch. Washington had three runs already in, the bases loaded, no outs and the tying run in the on-deck circle.

That was the good news. The Nationals, though, also had the generally unproductive bottom third of their lineup coming up. Adam Kennedy pinch-hit for Alberto González and, after swatting a line drive inches foul down the right field line, struck out on a high fastball.

Up came Wil Nieves, two for his last 32 and batting .168 for the year. Nieves scrapped to a 3-2 count, but Dessens ultimately induced an inning-ending double play to shortstop. As quickly as the middle portion of the Nationals lineup had given them hope, the bottom of the order had frittered it away.

Five runs, still, would be enough to win most games. Stammen had provided a degree of difficulty too steep, and he had provided another maddening reminder that his talent does not always show up.

"Today," Riggleman said, "he just didn't have it."

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