The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A storm cloud hovers over these Nationals, and the immediate forecast is just as troubling

Bryce Harper catches a flyball during the Nationals’ loss to the Colorado Rockies on Sunday. (Brad Mills/USA Today Sports)

Dark gray skies, a threat of rain and chilly winds all combined to set the raw scene at Nationals Park as reliever Sean Doolittle decided what to throw on a full-count pitch to former Washington National Ian Desmond in the ninth inning of a tie game.

The mood matched what has become an ominous spring for the Nats. Just because you book a hotel reservation — and it turns out to be a castle in Transylvania — that doesn’t mean you will meet vampires. But you wonder.

At roughly the same time at Citi Field in New York, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Matt Albers, a National last season, was facing the Mets in the ninth inning of a tie game.

Doolittle threw Desmond a fastball down the middle. After all, with nobody on base, two outs and Desmond in a 2-for-38 slump, what’s the harm?

Albers, also with two outs and nobody on, made the same decision — attack Wilmer Flores with a fastball, even though he was ahead in the count 1-2.

Both results were the same. Desmond blasted a 411-foot home run over the center field fence to give the Colorado Rockies an eventual 6-5 win. Flores also homered, just a couple of minutes later, to give his Mets an instantaneous 3-2 win.

“The Mets walked off,” Doolittle was told.

“Of course they did,” he said, disgustedly, though he had not previously known the result. “That’s how it’s going [for us] right now.”

Nationals finish frustrating homestand with another tough loss to Rockies

That combination of a homer by an ex-Nat and a losing gopher ball given up by an ex-Nat gave the scalding hot Mets (12-2) a six-game lead in the National League East over Washington. That’s stunning.

But it’s not unusual — at least not this year. If the Nats and their fans have a few unexpected jitters, so do folks in Los Angeles, where the Dodgers (5-9) are ­5 1/ games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL West, and in the Bronx, where the New York Yankees (7-7) are already ­5½  games behind their nemesis, the Boston Red Sox.

Baseball theater doesn’t usually arrive in mid-April. But if you go a little off Broadway, out to Flushing, you will find drama the next three nights when the Nats, injured and reeling from a 3-9 slump, must visit the Mets for a series that could leave the Nats as many as nine games out of first place or as few as three.

The Nats will not have either of their ace pitchers, Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg, scheduled for the Mets. Why? More than a week ago, Manager Dave Martinez skipped fifth starter A.J. Cole, who had been bombed for 10 runs in his first start of the season, so that he could try to get his Nats out of a skid by using Scherzer and Strasburg as soon as possible. The eventual consequence: Strasburg pitched Sunday against the Rockies, not Monday against the Mets.

Instead, the Mets will send all-star Jacob DeGrom against the newest Nationals arm, savvy speed-changing vet Jeremy Hellickson (69-69 career record), whose ERA expanded to 5.43 last year, leaving him unwanted late in spring training when the Nats gave him a minor league contract. Now they cross their fingers. Stormy weather is forecast for New York City on Monday. Feel free to do your favorite rain dance.

Nationals calling up Jeremy Hellickson to start Monday against Mets

“I was ahead in the count 0-2. I had three chances to put him away,” Doolittle said of his battle with Desmond, in which he missed high all three times with pitches “that didn’t even serve a purpose. I let him back in the at-bat, and he made me pay for it.”

Then Doolittle added words that might apply to many Nats now as they struggle to make do without Daniel Murphy, Adam Eaton and Anthony Rendon. “I think I was trying to do a little too much,” Doolittle said. “I kind of got caught up in the energy there.”

The Nationals player who is most damaged by trying too hard to compensate for missing teammates may be cleanup hitter Ryan Zimmerman, who went 0 for 5 on Sunday, dropping his average to a horrid .122 and his on-base-plus-slugging percentage to an almost-worst-in-baseball .428. Bryce Harper walked three times ahead of Zimmerman on Sunday and has 20 walks this season, yet Zimmerman has only five RBI.

Martinez defended Zimmerman’s reasoning for skipping every spring training game (except for two February at-bats). But there’s logic, and then there are results. If the results stink enough, nobody cares about your logic. That’s the pressure that Zimmerman ran the risk of placing on himself. No one in New York, you can be sure, will remind him of it over the next three days.

Martinez keeps defending the “effort of the boys.” They’re trying. But are they making sound decisions? Harper was doubled off first base by a base-and-a-half to end the seventh inning when he guessed that a Howie Kendrick drive would hit the right field wall because, “It sounded so loud off the bat. . . . I was [going to be] scoring.” But a strong wind knocked down every blast to right all day. The Colorado outfielder had time to call for the ball and make a routine catch.

Matt Wieters, of the piano-carrying Wieterses, is so slow he has tried only two stolen bases in the past four years. Yet after being hit by a pitch to lead off the eighth with the Nats down 5-4, Wieters tried to steal. The Colorado pitcher’s time to home plate is measured in Martian years. So Wieters followed the try-too-hard pattern of conscientious malfeasance. He was out. Michael A. Taylor doubled — but with no Wieters to run around the bases ahead of him.

For several years, pundits have suggested that the Nats have lost four times in the first round of the playoffs because they dominated the NL East so completely, such as their 20-game romp in 2017, that they have never really faced year-long or last-week-of-the-season pressure.

Clearly the Nats have decided to correct this chronic condition. But they have gone to extremes. Whether they choose to view it that way or not, their series with the Mets, who swept them to start this ugly 3-7 homestand, is a big series, especially if the Nats get swept again to fall nine games behind.

As for Martinez, how is this managing gig working out so far? You’re 7-9, which could go unnoticed in many years in the NL East. Flip a couple of one-run games and it’s 9-7 — a 91-win pace. But that’s not how it is this year. The NL East is the hot place to be. Or the hot seat because the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves also lead the Nats.

“It wasn’t good,” Martinez said of the homestand. “But the effort is there. . . . We’ll keep pushing. We’ll press forward. We’ll snap out of it, and we’ll win a lot of games.”

His message to his team: Keep your heads up. Let’s come out tomorrow, be present in the here and now. “I see good signs,” Martinez said.

Three days of focus in New York could be a learning experience for these staggering Nats, a valuable first installment in a season of tough times that create a tough team. Or, of course, the guy from room service could be Count Dracula.

More on the Nationals and MLB:

Daniel Murphy to play in extended spring training games starting this week

Analysis: The Mets could pull away from the struggling Nationals

Couch Slouch: Most of baseball’s unwritten rules are stupid and strange

‘Every day is the craziest’: Japanese press tailing Ohtani is already worn out