Tuesday, September 21, 2021

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Nationals make the most of whats left behind in win over stumbling Mets


NEW YORK - Were the fans inside Citi Field angry because the Washington Nationals had one hit after the third inning Friday night and still beat their team, the flatlining New York Mets? Or was it because those same Mets couldnt erase a tiny, one-run deficit against Paolo Espino, Andrés Machado, Sam Clay, Kyle McGowin or Kyle Finnegan, the zone-pounding members of Washingtons left-behind bullpen?

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Probably, it was the brutal combination of the two. The Mets put one runner on base against the Nationals' bullpen, on Jeff McNeil's two-out single in the eighth, and managed nothing else. The Nationals' 2-1 win was sealed by Espino's best start in five weeks, by stingy performances from Machado, Clay and McGowin, then by Finnegan's sixth save.

The offense chipped in what was needed - which, again, really wasn't much. And that's how the Nationals sank the Mets, bumping their lopsided record to 55-72.

This was supposed to be the Mets' oasis. After leading the division in early August, they went into free fall, dropping 11 of their past 13 against the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. They entered the weekend in third place at 61-66, trailing the Atlanta Braves by 7½ games in the National League East. The series before that stretch, though, was a sweep of the Nationals here. And their next 13 games are all with the Nationals and Miami Marlins, two teams that sold at the deadline and are decidedly not contending.

A chance to crawl back into it? Sure. But that will require actually taking the matchups that look advantageous on paper.

That's where the spoilers - or in this case, the Nationals - come in. That's when they stir a rally in the third, beginning with Espino's single off Mets starter Rich Hill. That's when they plate two runs, on Juan Soto's groundout and a single for Josh Bell, to create some separation, rustling an already frustrated crowd. And that's when Espino and the bullpen take it from there.

Espino entered with a solid season line against the Mets, if only in small doses: three appearances, two starts, seven innings and one earned run allowed. But in his three most recent full outings, facing the Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers, he yielded at least three runs and five hits. Against the Phillies, in one of his worst appearances of the year, Espino was tagged with six runs on eight hits in just five innings.

It appeared as if, after thriving in April, May and June, Espino may have been overexposed. A 34-year-old journeyman, a guy who had five major league starts before this year, Espino pairs a looping curve with a high-80s fastball. When he's going well, he's all deception and pinpoint command. He has thrown more sliders this year to work off his curve. But his arsenal still leaves a razor-thin margin for error, shown in those bumpy nights across July and August. Then he used the Mets to get back on track.

Two of their three hits against Espino were loud. One of the three was costly. In the first, Francisco Lindor whacked a two-out triple to the right-center gap. Espino stranded him there by striking out Javier Báez on an outside slider, a pitch that darted away from the plate. But Báez beat Espino in the fourth, stalking a first-pitch fastball and sending it over the right-center field wall and into the Nationals' bullpen.

Other than that, Espino was sharp and efficient. He struck out four batters with his slider, two with his curve and one on a fastball, good for a season high of seven. He was through four innings on 52 pitches and five on 68. But Manager Dave Martinez stayed conservative, keeping Espino from seeing the top of New York's lineup a third time. Espino also has never recorded more than 16 outs in the majors. So the bullpen phone rang.

By that point, Washington's offense had stopped. It didn't register a hit in the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth. From the third to the ninth, when they took their last at-bats, 15 of the Nationals' 23 batters struck out. But Machado, Clay, McGowin and Finnegan inherited that slim, unmoving lead and clung to it.

Machado quietly retired Brandon Nimmo, Pete Alonso and Lindor in order. Clay, a lefty, struck out two in a one-two-three seventh, pounding three change-ups - his third-most-used pitch - to the right-handed J.D. Davis. McGowin then threw seven consecutive in-zone sliders to Dominic Smith, eventually striking him out looking. He stranded McNeil, who poked a two-out single, by getting Nimmo to fly out in foul territory.

That left Finnegan, Washington's de facto closer, to wrestle with Alonso, Lindor and Báez in the ninth. And after 11 pitches, once Luis García turned a double play at second, the angry boos returned.

Published : August 28, 2021