Nationals

Nationals

It’s the speed of the unraveling which is so alarming. The result alone -- ⅔ of an inning, four earned runs, soul-splitting loss -- would be damning enough for Sean Doolitle. But to not record an out before a three-run lead is gone? That’s a different breed of anguish.

The Mets put Doolittle in this spot Friday night. Their recent mojo in jeopardy with the Nationals’ closer on the mound, New York found a way to roar forward in a 7-6 win. Doolittle didn’t have it -- again -- in Citi Field. The Mets entered the game hitting .385 against him this season with a 1.025 OPS. Then J.D. Davis double. Wilson Ramos singled. Todd Frazier homered. Tie game. 

Five batters later, Michael Conforto’s single over the head of Adam Eaton -- a fly ball with a 70 percent catch probability -- landed in right field. The Mets stormed onto the field following their seventh consecutive win. Doolittle popped his cap up and looked down as he walked off the field.

Citi Field is home to ugliness for Doolittle this season. He was stunned May 22 when he allowed four runs and did not record an out. That was the second of three consecutive losses to New York in its final at-bat during a four-game sweep. The “dark times” as Doolittle referred to them once this season, back when April and May were working daily to sabotage August and September.

That night was the worst outing of Doolittle’s career. Friday carried its own disastrous weight because of the Mets’ recent run. They are cooking and believe the vibe to be authentic. Stephen Strasburg did plenty to stifle such thoughts with a seven-inning, good-enough performance in which he set the organization’s strikeout record while giving up three earned runs. He left with a 5-3 lead. That’s when Davey Martinez’s choices began.

Everyone in the bullpen had at least one day off. So, Washington is up two entering the eighth inning. Martinez picks Daniel Hudson to handle it. He does so adroitly. 

The Nationals tacked on a run in the ninth. Fernando Rodney warmed alongside Doolittle. Up four, maybe Rodney starts the inning. Up three, Doolittle is the easy choice, the Mets’ prior success against him notwithstanding. He’s the closer with a 2.81 ERA and two days of rest in his pocket. In he goes.

The question is if he should have stayed in. Multiple things for Martinez to consider there: psyche, who is coming up, who replaces him.

To the first. Removing the closer mid-inning is always a tenuous proposition. It’s a confidence bash and rarely happens. Blowing a save? Part of the game. Stow it, forget it, move on. Being taken out in the middle of ninth-inning chaos? Only in exceptional circumstances, and maybe not even then.

Left-handed Joe Panik followed Frazier’s home run. Should be an out. It’s a good matchup. Panik singled. At that point, it appeared clear Doolittle was reeling. Rodney was ready. All that mattered was keeping the game tied. 

Juan Lagares bunts, Anthony Rendon makes a nice play to cut down Panik at second. One out. Left-handed Jeff McNeil -- tied for second in the majors with a .336 average -- is next. Seemingly, this is a spot for Doolittle, who has held lefties to a .554 OPS this season. However, McNeil has almost even OPS splits and is hitting 40 points higher against left-handers. The calculus for Martinez is do I leave my struggling closer in to stay left-on-left, his strong suit, though it doesn’t matter to the batter and said closer is having a bad night. McNeil flies out. Two outs.

This could have been the spot for Rodney. Two outs, the winning run on base, a right-handed batter, Amed Rosario, who fairs much worse against right-handed pitching. But do you trust Rodney to fix this? Doolittle stays in. Rosario singles. 

That brings Conforto to the plate. He’s worse against left-handed pitching. Demonstrably so. Do splits matter at that point? Doolittle has thrown 21 pitches, few well-executed, and the game is flying on him. Conforto hits a fly ball over Eaton’s head. Game over.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Mets were 0-187 in games they trailed by three runs or more in the ninth since the last time they won such a game -- four years ago. Opponents were hitting just .179 against Doolittle, leading to a 1.68 ERA, since the All-Star break.

Which means Doolittle should have been in the game to win it, but probably should not have been left in to lose it.

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