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Nationals drop opener to Mets as pitching falters

WASHINGTON – For much of the summer, the fall guy for the Washington Nationals' swoon was their struggling offense. But on a sweltering day that marked the unofficial end of summer, it was their pitching that melted down.

The Nationals lost 8-5 to the New York Mets on Monday afternoon in the opener of a crucial series between the top two teams in the National League East, dropping them to five games back in the division with only 25 left to play. If you’re a Washington fan looking to place blame, look no further than the mound, where Nats hurlers put the "labor" in Labor Day.

This was supposed to be a mismatch. Back-end Mets starter Jonathon Niese, coming off three straight mediocre outings, against Nats ace Max Scherzer, the $210 million man. The former Cy Young winner didn’t pitch in either of the past two Mets series but was ready to take the hill and close the gap to three games. With the Nats scheduled to face Matt Harvey on Tuesday and Jacob deGrom the day after, if there was one game Washington was supposed to win, this was it.

(Sound of needle scratching on record.)

From the beginning, as has been the case for the better part of the past six weeks, Scherzer was anything but sharp. He allowed solo home runs to Michael Conforto and Kelly Johnson in the second inning, then served up another to Yoenis Cespedes in the fourth, staking the Mets to an early 3-0 lead. Scherzer has allowed 14 home runs in his past 58 innings, the second-most in the majors, after allowing only 10 in his first 132.

After the game, Scherzer sang a refrain that has become all too familiar for Nats fans lately.

“I’m just making mistakes in the zone. Leaving the ball thigh high instead of getting the ball down at the knees. That’s something that’s been symptomatic it seems in the second half,” said the 31-year-old righty. “That’s what’s going to keep me up late tonight.”

That, and an ill-timed balk.

In the top of the sixth, with his team leading 5-4 following a five-run fourth inning that featured a Wilson Ramos grand slam and a Jayson Werth RBI double, Scherzer gave up a leadoff double to Cespedes, who advanced to third two batters later when Scherzer was called for a one-out balk with Travis d'Arnaud at the plate. It was Scherzer’s first balk of the season and just the fifth of his career. On the next pitch, d’Arnaud hit a sac fly to left. Just like that, Scherzer had frittered away the lead his team had worked so hard to reclaim.

“I take pride in putting up zeros and being able to turn it over to the bullpen,” Scherzer said. “It’s extremely frustrating that I wasn’t able to do that.”

Just as frustrating for Nats fans was the ensuing performance by a Washington bullpen that, according to manager Matt Williams' pregame comments, was rested and had everyone available. Nevertheless, during the decisive top of the seventh, a quartet of middle relievers that included Blake Treinen, Felipe Rivero, Casey Janssen and Matt Thornton allowed three runs on three hits and a walk. Meanwhile, the Mets' bullpen -- which should have been in shambles given that (A) Tyler Clippard threw 41 pitches on Sunday, (B) Niese lasted just 3⅓ innings, and (C) Carlos Torres, who relieved Niese, exited after an inning-plus with a strained calf -- tossed 5 2/3 shutout innings to seal the victory.

As conspicuous as the bullpen’s failures were, just as conspicuous, if not more so, were some of the decisions made my Williams, the second-year skipper who has been under fire recently for his handling of the bullpen. Among Monday’s oddities? Lifting the lefty Rivero, who has been lights out recently, after one batter in favor of the righty Janssen, who has been more like lighter fluid. Yes, the next batter was David Wright, a right-handed hitter, but Janssen’s average against righties is about 40 points higher than Rivero’s, not to mention almost 100 points higher than his average against lefties.

After Janssen gave up a go-ahead single to Wright, Williams called on southpaw Matt Thornton to face lefty Daniel Murphy, who hit a sac fly to left to increase the Mets' lead to two. Then, despite right-handed help available in the pen, Williams left Thornton in to face the righty Cespedes, who doubled in the Mets' final run.

It was a fitting end to a day when the Nationals pitching staff simply didn’t pull its weight. Meanwhile, the Mets' pitchers -- or at least their relievers -- did what they were supposed to.

“They got a shutdown bullpen,” said Bryce Harper, who went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, including a ninth-inning whiff against New York closer Jeurys Familia. “We just gotta find a way and come back tomorrow. It’s part of the game. You win and you lose, and sometimes it rains.”