WASHINGTON — On Monday afternoon, an understandably frustrated Bryce Harper vented a little frustration toward the Nationals fans at the park that day, many of whom began filing out during the seventh inning of a come-from-ahead, 8-5 loss.
“I mean, they left in the seventh, so that’s pretty brutal,” he said, then shrugged and shook his head. “Uh, I don’t know.”
On Tuesday night, those who stayed may well have seen the symbolic end of the entire season. What looked to be a vital win spiraled into a soul-crushing defeat, the cackling ghosts of Game 5 echoing around the concourses of 1500 South Capitol St. SE.
While Harper had a second quiet night amid his MVP-worthy season, his teammates took advantage of Matt Harvey and a fortunate hop in the outfield to open up a 7-1 lead through six innings. The play that appeared to be the crushing blow — a bases-loaded single to center by Michael Taylor that hopped over Yoenis Cespedes’ mitt and rolled all the way to the wall for a Little League grand slam — had the announced crowd of 27,507 rocking in the aisles, looking forward to a Wednesday night rubber match between Stephen Strasburg and Jacob deGrom.
Then the Nats bullpen put them through Book of Job-like torture, walking six batters and allowing six runs to score all after two outs in the seventh inning alone, tying the score. Was this what the fans were supposed to stick around for?
For once, manager Matt Williams made sound moves at nearly every turn (nearly … more on that later). He didn’t let the crowd overrule his decision to hook Jordan Zimmermann, opting instead for Matt Thornton to face Daniel Murphy with one on and two outs in the top of the sixth. He wasn’t wrong to turn to Blake Treinen with a six-run lead to start the seventh, nor to go to southpaw Felipe Rivero against the pinch-hitting lefty Kelly Johnson, with another lefty on deck in Curtis Granderson. And he finally went to Drew Storen in the type of high leverage situation he has steadfastly refused to since the Jonathan Papelbon trade, with the bases loaded and the game on the line.
But Storen couldn’t throw a strike. Or, rather, he couldn’t once Yoenis Cespedes cleared the bases with a three-run double to bring the Mets within a run. In all, Storen threw 22 pitches, 15 of them out of the strike zone. He walked three batters in an outing for the first time in his career. Once he walked Murphy and Wright to load the bases, though, Williams left him in. Storen walked Lucas Duda. Tie game.
Storen even fell behind Travis d’Arnaud 2-0, who lined a ball toward the gap in right-center, but good positioning and a nice jump by Harper helped him get there in time to escape the inning at 7-7.
With no options left, Williams turned to Papelbon for two innings in a non-save situation. And just as Bob Carpenter and F.P. Santangelo were singing the new acquisition’s praises on the MASN telecast, pinch-hitter Kirk Nieuwenheus dropped the head on a piped, 1-0 fastball, sending a moonshot over the scoreboard in right-center to put the Mets ahead for the first time.
Just as fans might have been wondering where the reliever the Nats had needed all season long to bridge the gap to the ninth, there he was, trotting in from the wrong bullpen, wearing blue instead of red. He was punching out two in a 1-2-3 bottom of the eighth, fist-pumping, begoggled head bobbing familiarly as he marched triumphantly back to the dugout.
The Nats gave themselves one last chance against Mets closer Jeurys Familia in the ninth, and Williams, almost symbolically, did his best to cut it out from underneath them. After Jayson Werth poked an 0-2 pitch for a single to start the frame, Williams sent Anthony Rendon up to bunt, in a situation where one run would not win the game, only tie it. This, despite the fact that likely National League MVP Bryce Harper was in the on-deck circle, and would doubtless be intentionally walked if the sacrifice worked.
Williams was actively trying to give an out away and take the bat out of his best hitter’s hands.
After fouling the first bunt off, Rendon had a few good takes, working the count to 3-1.
And Williams still had him bunt.
“He just bunted too hard,” said Williams postgame. “Familia’s a ground ball guy. If we go full (count) there, he’s going to swing.”
Of course, that the sacrifice failed didn’t even matter. Harper walked anyway, setting up ostensibly the same situation (the Nats’ win probability went from 31.1 percent after the Werth single to 31.5 percent after the Harper walk). But the comment — the “ground ball guy,” meaning that he wanted to avoid a double play situation — shows that Williams couldn’t look two batters ahead to see that he was creating a situation in which the team leader in grounding into double plays, Yunel Escobar, would be put in a position to do just that. Ballgame over.
The Nats now live — if you can call it living — six games back with 24 to play, but the missed chance to make it four was the worst blow yet. It was also just the latest meltdown, the fourth in nine days after the offense scored at least five runs. At least the fans stuck around to see how it all ended this time.