WASHINGTON -- Hours before the Mets took the field for the first of three critical games in Washington this week, Mets infielder T.J. Rivera shuffled out to an empty patch of grass, where bench coach Dick Scott began feeding him short hops. Rivera took balls at different angles, positioning his glove just so, working to refine the nuances of his defense.
Often, Mets players do extra work in this fashion. Jay Bruce prides himself on his defensive gains. Rivera has worked at five different positions, playing four of them in games. Wilmer Flores has taken thousands of pregame grounders over the years. But none of it has turned the Mets into a sound defensive team. To the contrary, their inefficiencies burned them in an 11-4 loss Tuesday to the Nationals, who widened their NL East over the Mets lead back to 11 1/2 games.
"If you're going to pitch, you've got to catch it," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "Some of the best pitching in baseball has some of the best defense in baseball."
The alternative, of course, is also true. Though starter Seth Lugo gave up six runs in five innings to take the loss, much of the damage could have been avoided.
The Nationals took the lead for good during a four-run fifth-inning rally, which caught fire when Bruce committed a two-base fielding error on a Bryce Harper single. That allowed Wilmer Difo to race all the way home from first base.
"Obviously, it went terribly wrong," Bruce said. "I blew it, just the bottom line."
The next batter, Daniel Murphy, hit a bouncer that ricocheted off Flores' glove, trickling into left field to plate a run. Struck at just 70 mph, according to Statcast™ data, the ball had a 27-percent probability of resulting in a hit.
All four runs in the inning were earned, ballooning Lugo's ERA from 3.55 to 4.75. And that rally occurred mere hours after the Mets lost a game on a softly hit, walk-off single that Yoenis Cespedes could not corral.
"It's real frustrating," Lugo said. "That's what you go through all the time. I was taught in the Minor Leagues, when guys get on base, you want ground balls, you've got to get double plays. But sometimes they find holes. Hopefully they find people more than they find holes, but that wasn't the case today."
Entering the afternoon, the Mets ranked 25th in baseball with -18 Defensive Runs Saved, including a -29 mark at second base, third base and shortstop combined. They had turned just 68.5 percent of batted balls into outs, second-worst in the Majors.
Due to injuries, the Mets started natural shortstops at second base and in left field on Tuesday, and a player who has never really had a clear defensive home -- Flores -- at third. That is not unusual for this team, which general manager Sandy Alderson constructed on the foundation of power pitching and power offense -- sacrificing elite defense in the process. But their pitchers have given up solid contact more this season than at any point the past two years, according to Statcast™ data, placing additional pressure on a defensive unit that never ranked highly to begin with.
The results have been plain for the third-place, sub-.500 Mets to see.
"It seems like we're six to 10 inches away from being in the right place," Collins said. "I don't sit there and study the defensive analytics. I can see it."