The accumulation of small chances wasted, in the crucible of a playoff chase, can lead to the squandering of a larger chance. Tuesday night, the Washington Nationals chocked the bases full of runners and found creative means to leave them there. The Atlanta Braves’ 11 losses in 15 games had invited the Nationals to abscond with the National League East. The Nationals remained polite in their refusal.
If the Nationals are still jockeying with the Braves in late September, they may think back to Tuesday night’s 6-1 loss to the New York Mets at Nationals Park with deep regret. Against an opponent they had beaten in 10 of 11 games, they frittered away ideal chances to bust the game open early and score crucial runs late. By the time Gio Gonzalez started cruising, the Nationals had missed their opportunity against Zack Wheeler. Once Gonzalez exited, the Nationals’ bullpen and defense conspired to secure his loss.
The night’s frustration mounted and oozed from the Nationals. At the end of his outing, Gonzalez slammed the ball in Manager Matt Williams’s palm, pursed his lips and shook his head as he walked off the mound. After he drove a flyout to the left field warning track, Bryce Harper slammed his helmet to the ground with both hands at first base, and the sound of reinforced plastic meeting dirt echoed throughout the park.
“That’s the game,” second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera said. “Sometimes, you don’t find the luck, and sometimes you got it. It’s a tough game.”
Fans lined up in late afternoon and packed the seats pregame to collect giveaway Jayson Werth garden gnomes. The crowd had thinned by the late innings, at about the time the Braves took the field in Seattle. The Nationals, 9-9 since the all-star break, have won enough to keep the Braves at arm’s length and lost enough to keep them well within sight. Once the Braves had succumbed to Felix Hernandez and the Mariners, the Nationals’ lead held steady at three games.
“We’re pretty much aware of everything,” Werth said. “We know what’s going on around here. I feel like we’re in control of our game and where we’re at in the season. I just feel like at some point, we’re going to go on a roll and rattle off some wins.”
The Nationals’ penchant for self-ruin reached a crescendo in the sixth. The Mets entered with a 2-1 lead, and Werth hammered a leadoff double to left-center field. With Adam LaRoche at the plate, the Mets shifted three infielders to the right side of the infield.
LaRoche whacked a tumbleweed single through the left side, against the shift. Knowing the ball would skip through, Werth got a perfect jump. He sprinted to third base, an eye on third base coach Bobby Henley.
The circumstances screamed for caution — no outs, Ian Desmond and Harper due up, Werth running on an aggravated sore ankle.
Henley windmilled his right arm. Werth chugged down the line, slid hard into the plate and met Travis d’Arnaud, who held Eric Campbell’s throw in his mitt. Werth thought he was safe, but an umpire’s review confirmed he was not.
Henley’s mistake may have been focusing on details — Werth’s lead and the Mets’ defense — rather than the situation. But Henley’s aggression has often served the Nationals well. When it backfired Tuesday, the Nationals defended his style.
“That’s the way we play,” Williams said. “We’re aggressive. We have been all year. And we can’t stop now. So I have no issue.”
Gonzalez walked to the mound in the top of the seventh having retired 13 of 14 hitters, in a rhythm after the Mets scored one run in each of the first two innings. He issued a leadoff walk, then yielded an infield single to Ruben Tejada. With Wheeler at the plate, Williams came to take the ball. Gonzalez reacted as if he was kicked in the shin.
“I wanted to face the pitcher, yes, to at least that out of the inning,” Gonzalez said.
Williams had good reason to hook Gonzalez after only 89 pitches. Wheeler would surely sacrifice bunt, and Gonzalez tends to fall off the mound on his follow-through, which compromises his ability to field bunts to the left side.
So Williams opted for Drew Storen. After’s Wheeler’s effective bunt, Storen drilled Juan Lagares to load the bases. Needing a double play, Storen’s 0-2 change-up to Daniel Murphy induced a grounder up the middle. Cabrera, such a steady fielder since the Nationals acquired him Thursday, couldn’t handle it. The ball scooted under his backhand attempt, and two runs scored to make it 4-1.
“Pretty close,” Cabrera said. “I think I have a chance to make that play, but I missed the ball.”
The Nationals were lucky to score one run in the second inning. Or maybe they were unlucky they didn’t score more. Wheeler pumped fastballs at 97 and 98 mph, but located them as if blindfolded. He walked the bases loaded with one out and spiked a fastball that scooted past d’Arnaud. LaRoche raced home to make it 2-1.
With two runners in scoring position and one out, Jose Lobaton whacked a chopper to the left side, likely headed to shortstop Ruben Tejada’s glove, sure to score Desmond from third — until it nailed Cabrera as he ran from second to third. By rule, Cabrera was out, Desmond returned to third base and Lobaton was credited with a hit — the rare single that failed to score a runner from third.
“I didn’t see that ball coming towards me,” Cabrera said. “He hit it hard enough that I didn’t even know. I thought it was to my left.”
The Nationals squandered their third-inning rally in less bizarre fashion. Denard Span led off with an infield single, stretching his on-base streak to 31 games. Anthony Rendon lashed a screaming single to left. With Wheeler on the ropes and a big inning in the offing, Werth grounded a 3-1 fastball to short, and Tejada started a 6-4-3 double play.