Walking into Citi Field is different. It just is. The vibe around the Mets is a mish-mash of big city, oddball and outlier. Their home park is one of the few places in the league where much of the transportation is train-based. Most are extracted from the city and dumped onto the Mets-Willets Point stop via the Port Washington Branch line of the Long Island Railroad or the 7 line on the subway.
When the Nationals arrived there Monday, May 20, 2019, they were coming from Chicago. In tow was a 19-27 record and failed weekend against the Cubs. A Stephen Strasburg win was all they had to show for three days in Wrigley Field.
However, the Mets were managing their own growing calamities. New York was 21-25, losers of five consecutive games, including a three-game sweep in Miami. The day the Nationals showed up was also the day New York was explaining Yoenis Céspedes’ broken ankle. So, the series loomed as a fight between a team going nowhere and a team going nowhere while explaining a random injury to a star.
Waiting in the press box was a happy welcome and sight for the sugar-inclined: Popped open donut boxes framed a hand-written note. “Have a great series! BVW”.
Those are the initials of the Mets’ general manager -- former agent, part showman, growing baseball man -- Brodie Van Wagenen. He’s savvy enough to know a way to a sportswriter’s heart is through their stomach with bad food. Yet, the donuts did not deter questions before the series opener if manager Mickey Callaway was going to be fired.
“There is support from every part of this organization that we believe Mickey is going to be our manager as we go forward,” Van Wagenen said. “That expectation wouldn’t change from going forward to the next season, and hopefully to winning games and winning championships.”
Mike Rizzo would be performing the same task four days later.
So, under this setting, when claims of, “it’s early” were beginning to fade, the Nationals opened a four-game series in New York. The 96 hours became a damning run which pushed the Nationals’ season to the edge, set off a slew of condemnation largely focused on the manager and prompted wonder about shipping out stars more than two months before the trade deadline. All against the Mets.
Patrick Corbin made 33 starts in 2019. He gave up four earned runs or more six times. The second time was May 20 against the Mets when the Nationals lost, 5-3. They made two errors -- one by Joe Ross, one by Gerardo Parra -- continuing an early-season- trend of awful defense despite a spring training emphasis on the little things. Wilmer Font (who made 17 starts last year and is now on the Blue Jays) started for New York and out-pitched Corbin.
“You start the game, and you think you’ve got a really good chance to win it,” Martinez said. “But, hey, they came out and swung the bats. They hit two home runs off a really good pitcher.”
The Mets snapped their five-game losing streak. The Nationals dropped to 19-28 and nine games out of first in the NL East.
Moves were happening. Tanner Rainey debuted that night. Javy Guerra was claimed off waivers. Dan Jennings was designated for assignment. Rizzo was knee-deep in the grand chore of trying to fix the bullpen.
There was also this: Adam Eaton and Todd Frazier had to be separated on the field after they began yelling at each other. The two were previously teammates with the Chicago White Sox. They would also get in disputes then. This interaction -- “Mortgagegate” -- just added a sprinkle of extra nonsense to the series.
“I’m walking with my head down, play’s over, I’m walking away, I can still hear him,” Eaton said. “I’m a 30-year-old man with two kids, got a mortgage and everything. He wants to loud talk as he’s running off the field. At the end of the day, I got to be a man about it. I tried to stay patient with the childishness, but it is what it is. I got to stand up eventually.”
The next day began with a horde of reporters waiting for Eaton. Frazier told reporters Eaton should pay his mortgage. Eaton chirped when given his chance, then tried to steer the conversation away.
Eaton’s locker in the visiting clubhouse was right by the entrance. So, anyone inside of the clubhouse would be hard-pressed to miss what was going on. It was a bad look in what would become a worse night.
The Nationals gave up runs in the seventh, eighth and ninth. They provided a flash of a more positive future by scoring in the seventh and eighth themselves. However, they were again left with a putrid taste after the Mets’ walk-off win on an infield single.
Wander Suero allowed a three-run homer when he threw a curveball to pinch-hitter J.D. Davis in the seventh inning. Davis was hitting .429 against off-speed pitches at that point.
Rainey allowed a home run to Pete Alonso. Tie game in the eighth, 5-5.
Rainey came back for the bottom of the ninth after facing three batters in the eighth. He struck out Carlos Gomez. Back-to-back walks put two on and ended his night. Enter Kyle Barraclough. A fielder’s choice groundout pushed the winning run to third base. Amed Rosario’s infield single to shortstop -- Trea Turner said afterward he was in between if he waited or charged -- scored the winning run.
Afterward, Yan Gomes revealed the malaise starting to spread.
“Keep playing until the game’s over, and not wait for that moment to happen,” Gomes said. “I think mostly the seventh, eighth innings start happening, or when those runs start coming in, we ... I mean, you definitely see a drop. We were still tied, and you kind of saw a drop in our ...”
The only reliever they could rely on to that point was Sean Doolittle. He pitched often -- as he would until injured in September -- out of necessity. And, he was one of the biggest challenges to manage for Martinez. They desperately needed Doolittle to stay afloat. However, crushing him now, less than two months into the season, could have ramifications later. Martinez had no choice. No one else was reliable.
So, in came Doolittle in game three of the series to make his 21st appearance in game 49 of the season. Max Scherzer started. He didn’t give up a run in his six innings. The Nationals were in the midst of yet another eighth-inning disaster when Doolittle entered to fix it. Barraclough had brewed it. Doolittle ignited it.
He recorded no outs. He threw 12 pitches and allowed four earned runs -- the same amount he allowed in his 20 previous appearances combined. The Nationals lost, 6-1. Doolittle was devastated.
“I don't know, it's tough and it's a tough spot to come in and the context of how our season's going it hurts you even more,” Doolittle said. “To have Max pitch so well tonight and the guys grind it out....shoot I don't know. I'm really frustrated. I'm disgusted with myself and I let the team down. And it hurts.”
Urgency began to show.
“We need to do something different sooner rather than later,” Eaton said. “We've talked about this for weeks now. Just haven't been playing good baseball.”
And, Martinez -- sounding almost tone-deaf in his positivity -- began to pump what would become an ongoing message.
“I tell them all the time: This thing will turn around,” Martinez said. “It’s going to turn around. But we have to believe that it will. We have to will it. It’s time that we just believe that we’re good enough to play here, cause we are. And we’ve got to make it happen. We’ve got to make things happen. And stay strong. Stay together. Stay strong. Pull for your teammates. And this thing will turn around.”
Yet, things became worse.
Doolittle’s hoodie covered his head the next morning when he sat at his locker. The Nationals arrived late because their team bus was jammed by traffic when trying to extricate itself from Manhattan. They were still nine games out of first place and unable to get out of their own way.
Martinez began to field questions about whether he expected to be fired. He deflected, primarily stating he was worried about the guys in the clubhouse, and remained convinced a turnaround was coming.
The Nationals waded into another close game that afternoon. Three runs in the eighth put them up, 4-3. Stephen Strasburg allowed two runs in seven innings. They needed six outs to leave Citi Field with one win. In came Suero.
He gave up another home run and the lead. New York scored three runs to go up 6-4. Mets closer Edwin Diaz completed a 1-2-3 ninth inning to finish the sweep.
“I mean we're not out of it that's for sure, I can tell you that right now,” Martinez said afterward. “Like I said, everyday we're close, we compete, we're in every game. Now we just got to finish games.”
The math suggested otherwise. Washington was 19-31, 10 games out of first and would need to go 71-41 the rest of the way (a .634 winning percentage) just to reach 90 wins. How would that be possible with the league’s worst bullpen? With no mojo, no ability to get things done late? Really, no future?
“Things are going to change,” Martinez said. “Things are going to change. And I know that. So we just got to keep pounding away, keep playing baseball. There's good players in that clubhouse, really good players. We'll turn things around.”
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