WASHINGTON -- The Nationals have won the National League East in three of the past four seasons, which includes winning the division crown in back-to-back campaigns. The lone team to unseat them as division champions since 2014 has been the Mets, and perhaps they are the biggest threat to do so again this season.
The Mets certainly looked the part on Thursday afternoon during an 8-2 victory at Nationals Park that spoiled the Nationals' home opener. Washington wasted a huge opportunity with the bases loaded, while New York capitalized on its chance thanks to a grand slam from Jay Bruce in the seventh inning to break the game open. It was the third consecutive loss for Washington after starting the season 4-0.
"It's the first seven games," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "Obviously, you want to win every single game. It's not going to happen. You're going to go through games where as a team you don't hit well. You have some opportunities to drive in runs you probably should. You get frustrated over it. But you can't really dwell on it. It's a really long season."
The game also included an injury scare to leadoff hitter Adam Eaton, who exited the game in the top of the sixth inning with after tweaking his left ankle, sliding into home a few innings earlier. X-rays were negative and Eaton estimated when he would only miss a day or two considering the off-day Friday.
After Eaton's exit, the Nationals began the bottom of the sixth inning with a prime scoring opportunity against Mets right-hander Jacob deGrom. They loaded the bases with nobody out before deGrom rallied to force Zimmerman to pop out and Howie Kendrick to line out to shortstop, and struck out Trea Turner on a called strike three. Turner was irate over the call and got ejected from the game.
"I felt like that was a big spot in the game," Turner said. "It kind of turned after that. Unfortunately, I had the bat taken out of my hands there."
The Mets loaded the bases against right-hander Brandon Kintzler in the seventh inning and Kintzler was not as successful in escaping the jam, as he surrendered the grand slam to Bruce. It spoiled a solid effort from Stephen Strasburg, who lasted six innings and gave up four runs, including homers to Yoenis Cespedes and Michael Conforto. Strasburg also yielded a run on his first balk since 2013.
A year ago, the Nats took 13 of the 19 meetings between these two teams as they cruised to a second consecutive division title. But the Mets got started on potentially making the season series more competitive this year.
"It's a long season, we're still feeling our way out," Eaton said. "We have very capable men in this locker room that can do really amazing things. I'd rather be playing good in October and September than in April, to be honest with you. We've played good in April and we've seen how that ended."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Turner tossed as deGrom escapes jam: Turner does not normally demonstrate much outward emotion on the field during games, but he earned his first career ejection after he was called out to end the sixth. Washington had the bases loaded after a leadoff single from Brian Goodwin and then back-to-back walks to Anthony Rendon and Bryce Harper.
But deGrom battled back to retire the next two batters in order, then painted a called third strike against Turner to escape the trouble. Turner disagreed with the location of the third strike, which appeared to be outside, voicing his displeasure with home-plate umpire Doug Eddings to earn the first ejection of his career.
"I think he just got tired of balls being called strikes," Zimmerman said.
Bruce crushes grand slam: Increasing the sting for the Nationals of not scoring in the bottom of the sixth, Bruce took the air out of a sold-out crowd of 42,477 fans at Nationals Park in the seventh when he launched the slam off Kintzler. Kintzler had Bruce down, 0-2, before he worked the count to 3-2 and swatted a grand slam into the stands in right-center field.
"More pitch selection for me, just way too much offspeed," Kintzler said. "I don't throw that much offspeed and just got away from the game plan I normally do."
"I definitely want two pitches back. I looked at the video. Cespedes is a low-ball hitter and I didn't throw it where I wanted to throw it. It was a ball, but good piece of hitting. It is what it is. And obviously Conforto, I missed my spot there again too. It's early and I wish I had those two pitches back, but I'll learn from it."
-- Strasburg, on his outing Thursday
Eaton tweaked his ankle on an awkward slide in the third inning as he scored from first base on a double from Rendon. He said he felt fine after the game and attributed the injury to some built up scar tissue that eventually forced him out of the game. With an off-day Friday and the potential for inclement weather Saturday, it is possible Eaton might not miss any games at all.
"If it was the playoffs, they'd put some type of tape on me and run me back out there," he said. "But we're in the seventh game. We've got a lot more ahead of us. So for precautionary reasons, they made sure I'm going to be 100 percent."
The Nats will enjoy an off-day Friday before they return to action Saturday afternoon against the Mets at 1:05 p.m. ET. Left-hander Giovany Gonzalez is scheduled to take the mound for the Nats looking to build off his impressive opening outing where he struck out seven in six innings of one-run ball.
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