On the first full day when the results no longer mattered, when not even a combination of miracles could get the Washington Nationals into the playoffs, the rain returned.
The Nationals were mathematically eliminated from the National League East race Friday. They were axed from wild-card contention Saturday. But they still jogged out Sunday, however damp the field may have been after a 25-minute delay, however futile it may have felt after 155 games led to this, and they fell, 8-6, to the New York Mets at Nationals Park.
“Today was a tough game to mentally get into, with the rain delay, and it was pretty cold for the first time in a long time,” Nationals shortstop Trea Turner said. “It wasn’t fun times, but I felt like we battled. Obviously we didn’t come out on top. But if we just continue to don’t give in, don’t give up, that’s fine with me.”
There were reasons to play this series finale, even when the skies opened and it looked as if another game may be washed away. No one likes to strike out or give up a hit or, more than anything, lose. Those little outcomes won’t change the outlook of this lost season, not now, but they can color these final days with bits of optimism for the future. That is what the Nationals (78-78) are left to show up for.
A few hours before the first pitch, with a tarp still covering the infield, starting pitcher Erick Fedde and catcher Spencer Kieboom huddled by Kieboom’s locker to break down the Mets’ lineup. Kieboom, a 27-year-old looking for any momentum heading into the offseason, trailed his finger down a sheet of paper and explained each hitter’s tendencies. Fedde, a 25-year-old trying to prove himself as a major league starter, listened quietly, offered a thought or two and expressed firm confidence in his slider.
Across the clubhouse, as Fedde and Kieboom continued to plan, Juan Soto ambled to his locker and caught a lighthearted ribbing from Bryce Harper.
“What’s up, man? Why aren’t you in the lineup today?” Harper shouted as he watched “NFL Countdown” in a lounge chair, pointing to how little the 19-year-old Soto has rested since joining the Nationals in May.
“Have to ask the manager!” Soto shot back, a wide grin filling his face.
“But you still ready, man?” Harper asked because Soto still could see action as a pinch hitter, which he eventually did.
“Oh, yeah,” Soto said, still smiling. “I was booooorn ready.”
“That a boy,” Harper finished. “Always be ready to play.”
And so, with no other choice, that was how the Nationals went into their last game against the fourth-place Mets (73-83).
They fell behind in the first when Fedde gave up back-to-back singles before Jay Bruce drove in Amed Rosario with a sacrifice fly. Then Fedde loaded the bases with no outs in the third, issuing two singles and a walk, before he erased the rally with a double play and a groundout to second.
That set up the Nationals’ three-run burst in the bottom of the inning, starting with the second career home run for 21-year-old rookie Victor Robles, a low, lined shot that just cleared the left field wall. Turner walked next, set a Nationals record with his 123rd career steal and scored on Harper’s double down the left field line. Four hitters later, Kieboom walked with the bases loaded, bringing in the Nationals’ third run. Mets starter Steven Matz was lifted for a pinch hitter in the fourth after throwing just 78 pitches.
But Fedde was not far behind him. In his fourth start since he returned from the 60-day disabled list, the right-hander struggled to spot his sinker all afternoon and put two more runners on in the fourth. Nationals Manager Dave Martinez took him out at 80 pitches — with five hits and four walks on his line — and reliever Wander Suero could not navigate away from further damage. Jeff McNeil singled in a run, and Michael Conforto ripped a cutter into the left-center field gap for a bases-clearing triple. The ball skipped past a diving Michael A. Taylor, rolled to the wall and gave the Mets a 5-3 lead. That deficit doubled an inning later, with Suero still on the mound, as the Mets used two doubles and a single to plate two more runs.
“He just didn’t throw strikes,” Martinez said of Fedde, who was charged with three earned runs. “At one point he threw more balls than strikes. Just couldn’t find the strike zone today.”
The rain thickened in the sixth, when the Mets tacked on their eighth run. The grounds crew, hellbent on keeping the field playable, rushed out between each inning, rakes in hand, to cover the dirt with diamond dry. The Nationals made their own push to save the afternoon, as they so often have in August and September, scoring three runs in the eighth before Soto got that chance to pinch-hit. But he popped out to third with the tying runs in scoring position, and the Nationals had missed their best chance.
And so, with no other choice, they again had to reach for a silver lining Sunday. Robles had that homer and tripled in two more runs in the eighth. Turner reached base five times. Jimmy Cordero got through the seventh unscathed, and Jefry Rodriguez did the same an inning later. But the game already was marked by Fedde’s shaky start, the four runs Suero allowed and that steady rain, a fitting accompaniment for the Nationals’ final, futile stand.