Just when it looked like the Washington Nationals might have shaken their first-inning curse, it came back with a vengeance today, and cost them another game.
Gio Gonzalez struggled mightily, lasting just three innings and giving up five runs, including three in the first inning, while Bartolo Colon held the Nats (22-20) in check as the New York Mets (20-22) beat Washington for the first time in nine tries by a score of 5-2.
Gonzalez (L, 3-4) did not look right during his abbreviated outing. His command was wanting, resulting in two walks and 36 of 84 pitches thrown for balls. What he did manage to get in the strike zone was squared up nicely by the Mets, who got all but one of their base hits on relatively good contact. The Mets had five baserunners in the first inning, and Juan Lagares hit a two-run home run off of him in the third. His final line was three innings pitched, seven hits, five earned runs, two walks, and four strikeouts.
In the postgame press conference, manager Matt Williams said Gonzalez’s “control issues early have really put him behind the eight-ball,” describing his pitcher as “inconsistent” today. He added that a major part of Gonzalez’s troubles were because he “never really found” his curveball or changeup, which forced him to limit his repertoire.
Gonzalez’s three first-inning runs given up leave him with seven total runs allowed in his past two first innings. Today’s game was also, astoundingly, the tenth time a Nats pitcher has given up three or more runs in the first inning. According to CSN’s Mark Zuckerman, the other 29 teams in baseball have done it a total of 58 times, or an average of twice per team.
When your starter exits after three innings with a five-run deficit, that’s usually a very bad sign for the rest of the game. But coming out the bullpen, Craig Stammen submitted a Herculean effort to keep the deficit manageable. Though perhaps Atlas might be the better comparable in Greek mythology, because Stammen absolutely carried his teammates.
He pitched four shutout innings, allowing just one hit and one walk while striking out two. While the Nats could not get much offense going during his appearance, Stammen tried to help his own cause at the plate. He belted a one-out double in the fifth, but was stranded.
The Nats did get a pair of runs after Gonzalez departed, thanks to a round-tripper from Ian Desmond, his sixth of the year. But Colon (W, 3-5) corralled the Nats otherwise, yielding just five hits and a walk over eight innings.
The Nats had a chance for another run when Jayson Werth led off the sixth with a long fly ball to center, but just as Werth had done to Daniel Murphy yesterday, Lagares did to him today, leaping to grab the would-be homer a foot above the wall.
The Nats have been a late-inning team all season, notching many dramatic comebacks thanks to some clutch hitting and a stellar bullpen. But the magic was absent today, perhaps because the Nats got just one inning against the Mets bullpen that yielded so many runs in their season-opening series. Jenrry Mejia closed it out without too much excitement, despite giving up a hit and going to a full count with Wilson Ramos, and earned his first save of the season.
Desmond was 2-for-4 today, and is now a strong 7-for-23 over his last seven games, posting a .318/.333/.652 line. He’s still hitting .228/.280/.383, but is showing signs of finally rebounding from his disappointing start.
Aaron Barrett and Jerry Blevins pitched a perfect eighth and ninth respectively. With Stammen, the bullpen combined for six scoreless innings in which it gave up one run and one walk while striking out four, lowering its collective ERA to 2.11, second best in baseball. Given how the starters have struggled, the success of the bullpen has been critical to keeping the Nats afloat. Williams remarked that “the bullpen’s been fantastic.”
With an 0-for-4 today, Ramos has been cold since his return from a hand injury, going just 4-for-23 at the plate and walking only three times. After the game, Williams said, “he’s not quite there yet, but it’s close.” It shouldn’t be concerning, given that this is pretty much the start of a new season for him, but it hurts for a team that needs its power bat back in the worst way.