NEW YORK — Fighting back means sustaining a few blows. Scratching and clawing wears down the nails. Climbing back from the brink takes energy. The Washington Nationals fought and scratched and climbed and clawed this week against the New York Mets. Eight innings into the series finale, they succumbed to their efforts and collapsed in an 11-5 loss.
The Nationals were six outs from a series sweep, but they had no fresh relievers to get them after battling through two close wins to begin the series. They turned to Ryan Madson for his third straight day of work — and his 11th appearance in 19 games — and he surrendered the lead and allowed the Mets to build one.
“Before the game, I have conversations with these guys. Guys tell me they are available,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “We use them accordingly. That’s how it works. Today wasn’t [Madson’s] day, but I have all the confidence in the world in them.”
Sammy Solis, working on his second straight day after warming up three times for multiple innings Monday, walked in a run. A.J. Cole, recently moved to the bullpen, worked for the second time in three games and surrendered a grand slam to Yoenis Cespedes. Shawn Kelley wasn’t available after working two straight days and warming up for a while Tuesday. Brandon Kintzler was unavailable after three straight days on. Matt Grace could have gone, but he is not proven in late-game situations. Sean Doolittle was available for one inning, max.
Entering Wednesday, the Nationals’ previous 11 games were decided by four runs or fewer. So entering Wednesday, the big guns in the bullpen had been needed almost daily for nearly two weeks.
Tanner Roark did his best to prevent the bullpen from having to get many outs at all. Despite a shifty strike zone and several conversations with home plate umpire Tom Woodring, and despite a throwing error from Ryan Zimmerman that seemed likely to doom him in the fourth, Roark battled through seven innings in which he allowed two runs on two hits. He handed the bullpen a two-run lead.
Zimmerman helped him build it. Nothing had been working for Zimmerman, who entered the day with an average hovering around .100. Martinez took an unpopular stance on the veteran first baseman, refusing to move him from behind Bryce Harper as he stranded runner after runner in scoring position.
When he came to bat with two on in the first inning Wednesday, Zimmerman hit a line drive to left-center, a shot with a destination so obvious that Cespedes hardly took a step from his position in left field. That three-run homer was Zimmerman’s second blast of the season. He tripled and homered later in the game, a good sign for his reemergence, just when the Nationals are without three of their best hitters — just when they need Zimmerman most.
“Zim’s starting to swing the bat. I love it,” Martinez said. “Everybody’s playing really well. We’ve got some momentum going forward. We have a day off [Thursday], which we definitely need.”
They need that day off not so much for their offense, which was just beginning to find its stride, but for that bullpen. Madson gutted out a stressful inning in Tuesday’s win but said he told Martinez he could pitch Wednesday if needed. He ran out of gas.
“I had about five, 10 good bullets in there, and the ball started getting away from me after that,” Madson said. “That’s one of those things. I kind of emptied the tank the night before to get that final out there, but I signed up for it. Thought I could give the boys that inning.”
Madson ended up allowing six runs on five hits in two-thirds of an inning. He had allowed 11 hits in 9⅔ innings entering Wednesday. He was not the only one to struggle. Solis couldn’t find the strike zone either. After allowing a triple and a homer Monday, Cole surrendered the grand slam to one of two batters he faced Wednesday before finally ending that grueling eighth.
During one of the many pitching changes that inning, the Nationals’ infielders started talking. They realized that while they hadn’t been blown out in some time, they hadn’t blown anyone out in a while either — not since an 8-1 win over the Atlanta Braves in early April, though their conversation probably did not get so specific.
“These guys have had to be in there pretty much every night,” Zimmerman said. “They’ve done a great job. We’re going to have stretches over the year where we win or lose by more than four or five runs and they can kind of get a blow now and then.”
They will get a blow Thursday, when the Nationals arrive in Los Angeles early in the morning and then have a full day to recover before their series with the Dodgers begins Friday night. They will take that flight in a team outfit — all black sweatsuits, a comfortable look for a long, late flight. They will take that flight happy. To a man, all of them say a series win here is exactly what they needed — a sweep would have been a bonus.
At some point soon, Anthony Rendon will return from injury. Adam Eaton will come back, too. They will not play close games forever. At one point Monday night, the Nationals were about to fall three games under .500 and seven games back in the National League East with little evidence they could turn it around. Wednesday night, they are one game under .500 and five games back, as exhausted physically as they are rejuvenated mentally.
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