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Bullpen blunders doom Nationals again: Mets rally in eighth inning for a 6-5 win

The Nationals' Justin Miller regroups after surrendering an eighth-inning, game-tying home run to the Mets' Robinson Cano on Saturday. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — A pitchers’ duel turned into a slugfest, and when it ended, after seven home runs left the yard, 51 outs were recorded and the scoreboard tilted every which way, it was again the eighth inning that did the Washington Nationals in.

The Nationals were in control, if only on the surface, if only for a moment, after Wilmer Difo crushed a two-run homer into the upper deck in right field in the top of the eighth Saturday afternoon. But the lead wasn’t safe. No late leads have been safe for the Nationals this season — with their bullpen reeling, their new setup man struggling and their outlook fading whenever the eighth inning begins. The New York Mets hit back-to-back homers in a three-run eighth that handed the Nationals a 6-5 loss that could have been avoided.

This one came just two days after the Nationals found a combination to finish a win. The Nationals have given up 17 runs in their first seven eighth innings of the season. And, in turn, they are 3-4 with a bullpen issue that already has lingered too long.

“We’ve got to figure out that eighth inning," Manager Dave Martinez said. "Guys have got to come in and throw strikes and get hitters out. That’s the bottom line. You put them in positions where you think they’re going to succeed, and they’ve got to come in and do the job.”

This was Patrick Corbin’s second start since signing a six-year, $140 million contract in December. In his first, against the Mets on Sunday, he gave up two runs in six innings and got a no-decision. The bullpen lost his three-run lead in the eighth, Trea Turner hit a walk-off homer in the ninth, and by day’s end Corbin’s strong showing was pushed into the background.

That happened again Saturday. Corbin’s uneven effort was spoiled by three solo home runs after he struck out seven of the first 10 batters he faced, and the game was decided by another eighth-inning meltdown.

The Nationals added three relievers this offseason: Trevor Rosenthal on a one-year contract with $7 million guaranteed, Kyle Barraclough in a trade with the Miami Marlins and Tony Sipp on a one-year, $1.25 million deal. The plan, heading into the season, was for Barraclough to pitch the seventh, Rosenthal the eighth and all-star Sean Doolittle the ninth. Barraclough did his part against the Mets, throwing a scoreless seventh before the Nationals moved ahead on Anthony Rendon’s solo homer and Difo’s blast. Rosenthal wasn’t called upon to do his. He has made three appearances this season, thrown 31 pitches and been charged with seven earned runs without recording an out.

This has been his first regular season action since missing a full year recovering from Tommy John surgery, a caveat Washington can take some comfort in. But his struggles have forced Martinez to reshuffle roles and use Justin Miller, typically a do-everything long man, in back-to-back eighth innings.

On Thursday, he succeeded. On Saturday, he did not.

“It was just one of those days; just didn’t have my best stuff," said Miller, adding that fatigue didn’t factor into his third appearance in four days. "I was just trying to go out there and attack guys. They beat me today. I’ll go out there tomorrow and beat them.”

The Mets built an early lead with three homers off Corbin — two from J.D. Davis and the third by Michael Conforto. The Nationals couldn’t capitalize on Steven Matz’s wavering command, striking out eight times before he exited at 103 pitches after the fifth. Corbin wasn’t far behind, finishing with six innings, nine strikeouts and three runs allowed, the homers cutting his outing short.

When the bullpen doors swung open, the action really began. Rendon doubled in the sixth — extended his hitting streak to six games, during which he is 12 for 23 with four doubles, three homers, six RBI and nine runs — and Ryan Zimmerman tapped him in with a groundout. That tied the score before Davis and Conforto went deep. Rendon’s homer led off the eighth, against Jeurys Familia, and the reliever was loudly booed after Difo hit the Nationals’ second of the inning.

But it only laid the groundwork for another frustrating eighth. Miller thought he had made a good pitch to Pete Alonso, but the rookie first baseman reached for the outside slider and pulled it over the wall. In the next at-bat, Miller made a mistake to Robinson Cano — he confirmed that on video he watched after the game — by grooving a low and inside fastball on a full count. Cano’s uppercut swing left no doubt as the ball sailed up, up and out to right-center.

After Miller cleared the bases with a double play, Sipp yielded a double to Conforto, hit pinch hitter Jeff McNeil when ahead 1-2 and gave up an RBI single to Keon Broxton that held up as the difference. Sipp faced three batters and didn’t record an out. Wander Suero came in to mop up the damage. Rosenthal remained in the bullpen, shelved for the second consecutive game, and will have to be used again soon. Martinez can shift his parts, try different formulas, see which relievers click in the eighth inning and outside of it.

But the seven arms won’t change, at least not before Sunday, so the core of the Nationals’ strategy is to keep trying with this group. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.

“We’ve got the same guys out in the bullpen,” Martinez said. "They’re going to come back tomorrow, and we’re going to do it again. And hopefully they can nail it down.”

Read more on the Nationals:

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Tony Sipp-Robinson Cano matchup underscores Sipp’s value to Nationals

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Stephen Strasburg and a sturdy bullpen give Nationals a drama-free 4-0 win over Mets

With Trea Turner out, opportunity knocks for Adrián Sanchez and Wilmer Difo

After another bullpen collapse, walk-off walk saves Nationals in 9-8 win over Phillies

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