NEW YORK — The Washington Nationals cannot wake up from this recurring nightmare.
Somehow, for the fifth consecutive game at Citi Field and for the second time in as many nights, they fell to the New York Mets after leading in the eighth or ninth inning. On Saturday, the Nationals grabbed the lead in the first and again in the eighth, only to give it away like all the others in a 4-3 heartbreaker of a loss that left chants of “Let’s go, Mets!” reverberating around the ballpark.
In the eighth, after Juan Soto hit his second home run of the game (and 24th of the season) to give the Nationals a 3-2 lead, Manager Dave Martinez called the bullpen. Newly acquired reliever Hunter Strickland, who replaced starter Patrick Corbin, had retired the side in order in the seventh on nine pitches, but Martinez felt he needed a fresh arm because Strickland is only two weeks removed from a nearly four-month stint on the injured list with a lat strain. Martinez went with Fernando Rodney.
“Fernando’s our guy; he’s been our eighth-inning guy,” Martinez said afterward. “I had all the confidence in the world.”
The first batter Rodney faced, Luis Guillorme, smashed a middle-in, chest-high fastball over the fence in right field. The 24-year-old’s first major league homer tied the score at 3.
“Missed the location a little bit, and Guillorme got a good piece of it,” catcher Yan Gomes said. “. . . Those kinds of things happen.”
Rodney was not available for comment after the game.
A throwing error by Trea Turner put another runner on, and a single moved him to second.
Martinez went to the mound again. Daniel Hudson, another of Washington’s trade-deadline acquisitions, jogged toward it. Hudson has had a sterling success rate of stranding base runners this season, but he couldn’t do it this time. After a groundout and intentional walk loaded the bases with one out, J.D. Davis hit a flyball deep enough to right field to score Joe Panik for what became the winning run.
After the loss, Martinez was asked to assess his eighth-inning relievers.
“It all depends; we’ll see,” he said. “I got options now, which is nice. But I got to be really careful with the guys we have: Strickland, not burning Hudson . . . and with Rodney. Rodney’s done well. He had a bad outing today, but he’s done well. I got confidence in all those guys.”
The defeat dropped the Nationals (61-55) into a virtual tie with the Milwaukee Brewers (62-56) for the two National League wild-card spots. The Mets (61-56) and St. Louis Cardinals (60-55) are a half-game back.
This wasn’t necessarily a game the Nationals needed — how many of them are in early August? — but it was one they very much would have liked to have had. They were already trailing in the three-game series because closer Sean Doolittle lost Friday’s matchup by allowing four runs in the ninth, and they didn’t want to bet on Aníbal Sánchez outdueling reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom on Sunday to avoid a sweep. They wanted to maintain their slim lead for the NL’s top wild-card spot, and they didn’t want to allow the Mets’ scalding stretch — 14 wins in 15 games entering Saturday — to continue.
The Nationals had shown they could hit Mets starter Noah Syndergaard: They had scored eight runs against him in three starts this season. The time to bounce back was now.
The Nationals got to Syndergaard early. Before the game, Martinez thought the key was getting the power pitcher down in the strike zone because he likes to elevate his fastball, which touches 100 mph. Martinez called hitting high cheese like that “tough.”
Syndergaard went up in the zone to Soto in the first, but it was a 91-mph change-up, and he caught too much of the plate. The Nationals phenom muscled it over the left-center field wall for a lead-seizing, two-run homer. Adding his go-ahead homer in the eighth, he has three home runs in this series.
“I’m feeling really better,” Soto said. “When I come to this series, I come to win. I come to fight with those guys, ’cause they are coming [to fight, too].”
The Nationals kept pushing, generating a chance to dent Syndergaard again in the third. They put two runners on with no outs, and the Mets took a mound visit. The right-hander was at 51 pitches and getting hit hard with Matt Adams coming to the plate. The first baseman had laced a single to center his first time up. This time, though, Adams bounced into a double play, and the Nationals did not score. From there, Syndergaard was on cruise control, finishing seven innings on 97 pitches and allowing just two singles the rest of the way.
In the meantime, for the second night in a row, the Mets tied the score in the fourth with back-to-back home runs. Davis crushed the first to center to reignite the crowd, and former Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos followed with one to left. They were Corbin’s only mistakes of the night in his six innings, but they were enough to set up a Mets comeback that, at this point, felt predictable.
On his way back to the clubhouse, Martinez spoke to his players. He’s a quiet leader, one who doesn’t call team meetings after games, so the words felt weightier.
“Hey, we’ll be all right,” the manager told his players. “We got another one tomorrow. Just keep your heads up.”