Nats sweep the Braves, then choke vs. Mets
Any good sports fan knows that you've got to look at the bright side whenever adversity strikes, which is often, and I was really holding out hope that the Nationals could stage a late-season drive to take the NL East title once again. And the dramatic four-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves in Washington, including what might have been a season-saving bottom-of-the-ninth clutch RBI, seemed to bear out cause for optimism. But after what happened in D.C. tonight and last night, I'm afraid that it's time to be realistic and admit that the team just doesn't have what it takes to be champions this year.
And what does it take? Well, a reliable bullpen, for one thing. Last night, Max Scherzer had another mediocre outing, and Matt Williams as usual kept him on the mound for one inning more than he should have. After a grand slam by Wilson Ramos, and two more clutch hits in the fourth inning, the Nats had a 5-3 lead over the New York Mets, and the home crowd was really fired up. But the Mets came back with one run each in the next two innings, tying the game, after which the bullpen came in and ruined everything. (Does that sound familiar?) Blake Treinen, Felipe Rivero, Casey Janssen (!), and Matt Thornton combined to allow three runs on four hits and a walk. Meanwhile, the Nats' offensive momentum vanished, as only one man reached base in the final three innings -- Jayson Werth had a leadoff single in the ninth, but it almost didn't matter. Mets 8, Nats 5.
And then came the debacle tonight, which will probably go down in history as one of the three biggest collapses in Nationals history, in terms of the size of the blown lead and how critical the game was. (The other two, of course, would NLDS Game 5 in 2012 and NLDS Game 2 in 2014.) Everything started fine, as the Nats put together four hits to get two runs in the first inning. David Wright homered for the Mets in the top of the second against Jordan Zimmermann, but that was OK because the Nats put another run on the board in the bottom of the inning. What appeared to be the decisive play of the game came in the sixth inning, when Michael Taylor came up to bat with the bases loaded. He smashed a single up the middle, but it got past the center fielder, and before you knew it, four runs had scored, making it a 7-1 game. Euphoria in Nats Town!
But then the bullpen came in and ruined everything. (Does that sound familiar? Have I mentioned deja vu before?) After Matt Thornton finished the sixth inning for Jordan Zimmermann, Blake Treinen and Felipe Rivero did about the same thing as the night before, the difference being that Drew Storen took the mound next, instead of Casey Janssen. With the bases loaded and the score 7-3, Storen gave up a bases-clearing double to Yoenis Cespedes, and then walked the next three batters, reloading the bases and giving up the tying run. He just couldn't throw any strikes, except for ones that were hit hard. Storen was lucky that Bryce Harper caught the line drive hit by Travis d'Arnaud, which could have scored two or three more runs. But it almost didn't matter, because that kind of a meltdown was probably the kiss of death for his career in D.C. To make matters worse, Jonathan Papelbon came in as a relief pitcher in the eighth inning once again (as he had done vs. the Braves on Friday), but this time he gave up the go-ahead home run to Kirk Nieuwenhuis. A pall of mortal doom instantly spread across Nationals Park. How could another such wretched twist of fate happen to the Nats? Once again, Jayson Werth had a leadoff single in the ninth, and Bryce Harper had a one-out walk, briefly raising hopes for a miracle, but then Yunel Escobar grounded into a double play to end the game. Mets 8, Nats 7.
So, whereas the Nats really should have a record of 73-65 right now, just two games behind the Mets, instead they are 71-67, six games behind. With just 24 games left to play, and with the Mets' magic number down to 19, and with confidence in the Nats' relief pitchers utterly shattered, there's really not much left to hope for.
As for the preceding series against the Braves, the Nats pretty much had to win all four games to close the gap with the Mets, and that's exactly what they did. On Thursday night, they vented their frustrations in a 15-1 rout, in which Jordan Zimmermann picked up the win. On Friday, the Braves were ahead 2-1 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, when pinch hitter Matt den Dekker hit an RBI single to send the game into extra innings. Except that it only took one extra inning, because Michael Taylor hit a three-run walk-off home run in the bottom of the tenth. Nats 5, Braves 2. That was a real feel-good moment for Nats fans, and it seemed that their dreams of another postseason were on the verge of becoming a reality. They kept up the momentum with two more lopsided wins (8-2 and 8-4), including more home runs by Bryce Harper (his 33rd and 34th), Jayson Werth, and Anthony Rendon. How sweet it was...