WASHINGTON -- The Nationals and Mets play each other seven of the next 10 games, starting with Tuesday night’s opener at Nationals Park, a stretch that should help provide some clarity to two teams currently middling in the National League East.
For the Nationals this game also presented the opportunity for some reprieve, as they returned home after a grueling 10-game road trip to face a divisional opponent. Once again, however, they were unable to capitalize on that chance, dropping Tuesday’s game, 6-2, at Nationals Park, their 14th loss in the past 19 games.
The Nationals are currently nine games under .500 (16-25) after another disappointing performance, highlighted by a key defensive miscue the scuffling offense was unable to overcome.
Starter Jeremy Hellickson seemed poised to escape the first inning after inducing a grounder from Robinson Cano that should have been turned into a double play. But an errant throw from shortstop Wilmer Difo to inexperienced first baseman Gerardo Parra, who could not scoop the ball cleanly, allowed Cano to beat out the play at first base, a call overturned by instant replay. That extended the inning for Hellickson, who gave up a hit to Pete Alonso and walked Michael Conforto, setting up Wilson Ramos’ grand slam, which put New York ahead, 4-0.
“Those errors have been costing us big lately,” Difo said through an interpreter. “What we need to try to do is take a step back, calm down and try to eliminate those errors, because they’ve been hurting us lately. And things will turn for us.”
Difo has been the Nats’ primary shortstop in place of the injured Trea Turner, who went 1-for-4 with two strikeouts in the first game of his Minor League rehab assignment with Class A Potomac on Tuesday night. If all goes well, Turner could be back in D.C. sometime this week, but the Nats still have a few more days without him. And Nats shortstops began the day with -8 Defensive Runs Saved on the season.
The Nationals cannot afford such mistakes right now, not with their lineup decimated by injuries, their bullpen struggling and Hellickson’s ERA at 6.00. Their margin for error is thin, especially because their offense has scored runs in just two of the last 36 innings.
“We've got to play clean baseball, we really do,” manager Dave Martinez said. “Got to give us a chance. That was a different game [if] we get out of that inning.”
Perhaps the game would have been different, but the Nats also did not manage a hit against Noah Syndergaard until the sixth inning, which Difo started with a single. Difo would score when Victor Robles swatted a two-run homer -- his third home run of the year against Syndergaard -- but that was all the offense the Nationals could muster. Syndergaard tossed eight innings of two-run ball with six strikeouts to cruise to his first career win at Nationals Park.
Perhaps it’s too early to be watching the standings, but the Nats are eight games back and in fourth place in the National League East after Tuesday’s loss. They believe a turnaround is coming, right around the corner even, but they must also avoid burying themselves too far in the division if they are going to save this season.
“Truthfully, I feel like we've been playing very well, we've just had a little bit of bad luck,” Robles said through an interpreter. “We've hit the ball well, right at people. Unfortunately, I think it’s just a matter of time, and it'll hopefully change.”