NEW YORK — The Washington Nationals overcame a deficit again, recovered when they looked totally lost, pushed ahead with a late rally that seemed, if only for a moment, to take their season off the brink and put it back on life support.
Yet that was just a placeholder for another disaster at Citi Field on Thursday. It was only a matter of time until the bullpen entered, until another effort collapsed in its hands, until the Nationals suffered a 6-4 defeat to the New York Mets and dropped to 19-31 in a season that feels all but entirely lost.
Wander Suero stood by the mound, his shoulders slumped, his eyes trained on the bleachers that swallowed up Carlos Gomez’s game-winning three-run homer with two outs in the eighth. It was the newest kind of fall for the Nationals, a team testing just how many ways there are to lose: waste four early rallies with bad situational hitting, wake up when the manager is ejected in the eighth, spring ahead in that same inning, then throw it all away soon after because the bullpen still cannot get outs.
That was it. That was how Washington left New York with four losses, each one more crushing than the last, and the smallest, shrinking window to turn this around. That was supposed to happen here, with the Mets wading through their own issues, looking like a perfect springboard for the Nationals to jump on.
Instead, improbably, the Nationals depart with a five-game losing streak, 10 games out of first place and in a full-on crisis of their own.
“Things are going to change. Things are going to change,” repeated Manager Dave Martinez, who watched the end of the loss from the Nationals’ clubhouse after being tossed in the eighth. “And I know that. So we just got to keep pounding away, keep playing baseball. There’s good players in that clubhouse, really good players. We’ll turn things around.”
Martinez was up until 2 a.m. Thursday re-watching yet another late-game meltdown in his hotel room. He always does this, almost as soon as he’s alone, to evaluate decisions, weigh alternative options or catch nuances he might have missed.
Then he and the Nationals were awake a few hours later, quietly boarding the team bus, driving through morning Manhattan traffic and a light drizzle. The series finale began at 12:10 p.m. The sharp turnaround gave them little time to unwind and unpack Wednesday night’s crushing 6-1 defeat. They had another game to play and could take the smallest bit of comfort in that.
But that only brought more problems by day’s end. The Nationals started 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position. They wasted a strong seven-inning effort from Stephen Strasburg. They were sparked by Martinez’s ejection, then Suero left a 1-2 cutter over the plate, and Gomez circled the bases around him.
“Look, we’ve got to find a guy in that seventh and eighth to get the ball to [closer Sean] Doolittle,” Martinez said of his major league-worst bullpen. “That’s the bottom line. In my mind and in my heart, I know we have the guys to do it. We’ve just got to finish it.”
Martinez later insisted that he was just defending Howie Kendrick in the eighth — ejected moments before the manager sprung from the dugout — and wanted home plate umpire Bruce Dreckman to ask for help on a check-swing call. But there were plenty of other sources of frustration, Dreckman aside: an offense that left eight men on base to that point, the fact that they were five outs from being swept and the general disappointment of sinking so far below expectations before the season has reached Memorial Day.
The manager screamed his voice hoarse while pointing in all directions. He kicked dirt onto home plate. He spiked his hat into the batter’s box and stomped around. He looked as angry as he has been since leading this team, a job that’s now in jeopardy, and maybe it was about time. Washington’s bad baseball had seeped into another day and soon another loss and then became another reason to believe that a disappointing start may have just been the introduction to a disappointing team.
Those in the clubhouse won’t say that, at least not publicly, at least not while they are still trying to push through. They are baseball players, their lives defined by failure, accustomed to placing irrational confidence in the chance to try again. But those opportunities have dwindled after 50 games. The calendar is no longer their friend. The margin for error, or whatever was left of it, has disappeared.
“We play 162. What game are we on?” second baseman Brian Dozier asked before he was told the answer. “A lot of games left, a lot of games. I tell people that all the time. When you get off to a bad start, it just gets scrutinized more than ever because that’s the way you start the season. But it’s all about how you finish.”
Washington soon left Queens, where it arrived this week in less disarray than the spiraling Mets and left as the bigger mess. The Mets had been swept by the last-place Miami Marlins last weekend, had lost five straight entering Monday and were forced to hold a news conference so the front office could express meek confidence in Manager Mickey Callaway.
And it was that team, across four long days, that smacked around the Nationals until they could do nothing but board a train home. The Marlins, winners of six straight, wait for them in Washington. Everything else is way up in the air.