Mets 1, Nationals 0
From Frank Robinson's perspective, peering over a railing in the visitors' dugout Friday night at Shea Stadium, it couldn't have been more frustrating. Jae Seo, a little-known Korean right-hander for the New York Mets, was making Robinson's Washington Nationals flail at fastballs and change-ups alike. Never mind that with a victory, the Nationals could have ended the evening tied atop the race for the National League's wild-card playoff berth. Never mind that the Nationals, with one well-executed bunt or even a lazy fly ball, could have taken hold of the game instead of allowing Seo to take hold of them.
Rather, on a Friday night in Flushing, a lone Mets run in the bottom of the seventh stood up for Seo, enough for a 1-0 New York victory that had Robinson quietly seething in the dugout, then openly fuming about his hitters afterward.
"I don't give a hoot about Jae Seo," Robinson said. "Anybody [who] goes out there and changes speeds sticks the bat up our rear ends. Simple as that. We make no adjustments. None. Not as hitters."
Robinson clipped off each word, for he knows what every wasted opportunity means in August. Right-hander John Patterson came up with another stellar start for Washington, his 17th in which he allowed two or fewer runs, one that lowered his ERA to 2.38. Yet he fell to 7-4 because the offense didn't adjust to Seo's mix of fastballs and off-speed pitches, and the Nationals slipped further down the increasingly tight wild-card standings.
Philadelphia entered the night with the lead, but the Phillies lost. Florida and Houston won. So entering the final two games of this 13-game trip, Washington trails Houston by one game and Florida and Philadelphia by a half game each.
"If we don't take care of our business, it doesn't make any difference," Robinson said. "None whatsoever. You can't gain ground on anybody by losing."
The Nationals, decidedly, didn't take care of their business Friday night. Seo has three times as many starts in the minors (19) as he does in the majors (6) this year. Yet he dropped his ERA to 1.09 by flummoxing the Nationals, particularly at key moments. He allowed only four hits in eight innings, and the Nationals felt it nearly impossible to mount a threat, completely impossible to deliver when they did so.
Two situations proved key. In the second, Preston Wilson led off with a double to left, one of only a few well-hit balls by Washington. Brian Schneider followed by doing his job, grounding out to the right side to move Wilson to third. When Seo hit Vinny Castilla with a pitch, the Nationals had runners on first and third with just one out.
With Jamey Carroll at the plate, Robinson decided to get creative. The sign came from third base coach Dave Huppert, and the squeeze was on. Seo threw a slider on the outside part of the plate, and Carroll reached to bunt it.
"I should've been able to handle it," Carroll said, "and put it in play."
He couldn't, and he didn't. With Wilson charging home, Carroll fouled the ball down the first base line. The element of surprise was no longer there, and Carroll had to swing from then on. He struck out, Patterson flied out to end the inning, and the game remained scoreless.
"If I get the squeeze down, it's 1-0, and we force them to get two runs," Carroll said. "We could still be out there playing. Obviously, you got to do those little things if you want to get into the playoffs."
There were more little things that, in some ways, Robinson found even more frustrating. The game's only run came home in the bottom of the seventh, when Mets right fielder Victor Diaz, playing for the injured Mike Cameron, fisted a ball sharply to right field, a single that scored Ramon Castro from second. Asked if he thought that might be enough for the Mets to win, Patterson said, "It was looking like it."
In the eighth, though, Diaz nearly gave it back, misplaying a fly ball from Castilla into a double. Cristian Guzman ran for Castilla.
This time, Carroll got a bunt down, sacrificing Guzman to third. After pinch hitter Carlos Baerga walked, the Nationals had the exact same situation -- first and third with one out. Leadoff man Brad Wilkerson came to the plate, just 1 for his last 15.
"I was looking, first pitch, to try to get it deep as I can," Wilkerson said, "and try to drive it to left field."
Instead, he fouled it back. In fact, he fouled off three more. Then, with two strikes, Seo fired a fastball low and inside. "I kind of froze," Wilkerson said, and he was called out on strikes.
"It shouldn't have even got to that point," he said. "I should've put the ball in play three pitches before that."
Yet he didn't, and when Jose Vidro flied out to center, the Nationals had stranded yet another runner at third. In the ninth, against Mets closer Braden Looper, Nick Johnson singled to lead off, but Jose Guillen didn't take a pitch, fouling off one, then swinging on a 2-1 count, grounding into a double play that further frustrated Robinson. Again, Robinson felt there were no adjustments.
"It's easy to say from the side, but it's tough out there," Wilkerson said. "He pitched a good game. . . . We've been making the adjustments this whole road trip. Tonight, we didn't."
Robinson, clearly, disagreed. When might his hitters listen?
"It's August," Robinson said. "The season's going to be over pretty soon. If they don't get it by now, there's no way you can convince them to change. You talk to them during the course of the ballgame. You reason with them. You point things out to them. And they still don't take heed."