WASHINGTON -- New York Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez had been jovial Friday night, cracking one-liners about how he texted one-time enemy Brian Bruney to welcome him to the organization on a minor league deal.
One day later, after the Mets had survived their first encounter with rookie phenom Stephen Strasburg and took a two-run lead into the bottom of the ninth inning, K-Rod produced what he labeled "the freaking worst performance I've ever had in my entire life."
Rodriguez nearly surrendered a walk-off grand slam to Adam Dunn, but a replay affirmed the ball struck the very top of the center-field fence and stayed in play for a game-tying two-run double. No matter. After an intentional walk loaded the bases, K-Rod surrendered a game-ending single to right field by Ivan Rodriguez as the Washington Nationals beat the Mets 6-5 on Saturday.
The Mets suffered their 10th walk-off loss of the season, matching the most in modern major league history through this date, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The other teams with 10 walk-off losses heading into Independence Day: the 1924 Philadelphia Phillies, 1965 Houston Astros, 1992 Los Angeles Dodgers and 1999 Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Nationals had not had a walk-off win when trailing after eight innings since Justin Maxwell delivered a game-ending grand slam off K-Rod and Washington beat the Mets 7-4 last Sept. 30.
"I think I should be ashamed of myself," said Rodriguez, who suffered his fourth blown save in 23 chances. "I'm so embarrassed. I just want to apologize to the fans that were watching that. I know I'm better than that. I know I'm capable to do better than the [expletive] job I did today. I've just got to tomorrow make sure to be ready. I don't have any concern. The thing I've got to do is I've got to go out there and do a better job and get people out."
Rodriguez had converted nine straight saves and had not blown a chance since June 2 at San Diego, but he has allowed a baserunner in all but two of his past 16 appearances.
"It's kind of funny. I think everybody thinks that everywhere else you go that all the innings are 1-2-3," said left fielder Jason Bay, who delivered an RBI double in the first inning against Strasburg, as the Mets produced a run in the opening frame for the fifth straight game. "I played in Boston. Paps [Jonathan Papelbon] is one of the best. It wasn't always 1-2-3, but the guys get the job done. ... Most of the time he gets out of it. That's just the way he is. [Rodriguez] didn't break the single-season saves record because he doesn't know what he's doing."
Mets manager Jerry Manuel earlier in the road trip had faulted the team's overwhelming walk-off loss total on the lack of a bona fide eighth-inning reliever, but this game's responsibility rested solely with the closer. Rodriguez opened his appearance with a four-pitch walk to Cristian Guzman. Eventually, Dunn batted with the bases loaded and one out and launched a ball that hit the top of the wall before staying in play.
"They didn't," Manuel later confessed about whether the runners touched.
Then, the manager added: "They actually have to pass each other is what the rule is. I was trying to suggest that [the umpire] got it mixed up."
Said Nats third base coach Pat Listach: "I've seen guys pass each other dozens of times. That's a heads-up play by [Harris]. I thought it was a home run, to be honest. I'm telling the ball to go, go, go. I look up and Guzy is running back this way. The bottom line is we made a couple of baserunning mistakes and we still won the game."
"It seemed to me like he was going back to tag up," Harris said about Guzman. "And I'm thinking to myself, 'Did he catch the ball?' because if he did, I was going to be out at second."
So much for Strasburg being the day's dominant theme. He was out after five innings, trailing 2-0.
Given the hype surrounding Strasburg, Mets right-hander R.A. Dickey deadpanned that he figured the phenom's pitches would come in cloaked.
"It's kind of anticlimactic," Dickey said after limiting the Nationals to a pair of unearned runs in seven innings and getting deprived of his seventh win. "Not that he's not good. He's very good. But I felt like the ball was going to be invisible. It was nice when I got up there and actually saw it. I know I struck out, just because I'm a pitcher. He threw me a breaking ball I thought was going to hit me in the mouth and it was a strike. But I saw it."
Jeff Francoeur quickly learned Strasburg's pitches are very much visible.
"Jeff, talk about your near-death experience," Bay told Francoeur, pretending to be a reporter, as Bay passed the right fielder's locker after K-Rod's meltdown.
With the bases loaded and two out in the first inning, and the Mets already having plated a first-inning run on Bay's double, Francoeur watched an upper-90s mph pitch from Strasburg whizzing at his head. Francoeur narrowly escaped, with the ball striking the bat he never had a chance to move.
"I tried to tell the umpire it hit me in the helmet," Francoeur said. "He told me I'd be on the ground if it hit me in the helmet. I was like, 'Good point.'"
Strasburg required 37 pitches to navigate a first inning in which he walked three Mets. The Nats had Miguel Batista warming in the bullpen.
"For the most part, he probably didn't have his best stuff, and we still only got two runs, which says a lot," Bay said. "A lot was made of this game because Strasburg was starting. I thought we did a pretty good job of handling him. Like I said, I don't think he had his best stuff, and we took a lot of pitches."
Said Strasburg: "Because I was 'sped up,' it really threw everything out of whack. Once I slowed down, it all started to work."
In the third inning, Mets rookie catcher Josh Thole -- who drew the doubly difficult task of catching the knuckleballer Dickey and facing Strasburg -- delivered a two-out single that scored David Wright and gave the Mets a 2-0 lead.
Strasburg was out after only five innings, with his pitch count having reached 96. His five strikeouts were the fewest in any of his six major league starts.
Washington evened the score with two unearned runs in the sixth, after shortstop Ruben Tejada muffed a potential inning-ending double-play grounder. The Nats tied it later in the inning on RBIs from Josh Willingham and Pudge Rodriguez.
Alex Cora, who had opened the scoring in Friday's victory with a three-run triple, this time opened the eighth with a three-bagger -- the first time he has tripled in consecutive games with an at-bat in eight years. Wright, who should be named to the National League All-Star team Sunday, padded his league-leading RBI total with a single to left. Thole added an RBI double and Tejada had a sacrifice fly. Tejada, despite his modest batting average (.234), is now 5-for-5 this season at plating a runner from third base when he bats with less than two outs.
Still, Dickey felt badly for Tejada, who couldn't get an out on the potential double play in the sixth, leading to two runs.
"I know that it hurts him badly," Dickey said. "You could see it in his face. Nobody wants to do as well as that kid. It happens. It's baseball. He was trying to get it out of his glove quick and turn a double play. It might have happened. It might not have happened. We would have gotten one out, for sure."
As for Thole's performance, which included seamless receiving of the knuckleball and a 2-for-3 showing with two RBIs and a walk at the plate, Dickey said: "He caught me in Buffalo and did an outstanding job every time. He got me a couple of pitches tonight just the way he caught it, and I had a pretty good one. And what he did off Strasburg, I've seen him do that off [touted Cincinnati Reds prospect Aroldis] Chapman and other guys that throw like that. It wasn't a surprise, to his credit."
Bay said it wasn't the pregame strategy to drive up Strasburg's pitch count.
"It was just evident from the start that he wasn't getting ahead," Bay said. "We were talking about it early -- that you're doing yourself a disservice if you're just trying to get the pitch count up and he's firing strike one in there time after time. A guy like that, with the stuff he has, that doesn't really put you in a better position. We did a good job of laying off. He didn't have his best command and we did a good job of taking advantage of that. But on the days where he does have his command, I don't really think that the try-to-get-the-pitch-count-up approach is really going to benefit you."
So the Mets reached the midpoint of the season with a 45-36 record, three games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East.
"Any time you have a lead late, you've got your guy out there, you kind of expect to win," Manuel said.