Thursday September 10th, 2015

There are 23 games left for the Nationals this year, but none of them will matter. Not after Wednesday night, when the Mets finished off a three-game sweep that didn’t dash Washington’s playoff hopes so much as it tortured them. Another late lead blown by the Nationals and another impossibly clutch piece of hitting by the Mets led to a 5–3 New York win that extended the team’s lead to seven games over Washington in the National League East—and, with just three head-to-head games left between the two, effectively ended the race for the division with three weeks to go.

Wednesday must have felt like déjà vu for manager Matt Williams and the Nationals, as yet another late-inning meltdown snuffed out their chances. For Stephen Strasburg, it must have felt particularly cruel: He sliced and diced the Mets over seven brilliant innings, striking out 12 and allowing just one run to that point in arguably his best start of the year. But holding a 2–1 lead in the eighth, he left a fastball out over the plate to pinch-hitter Kelly Johnson, who rocketed it to rightfield for a solo homer to tie the game. Two batters and a Curtis Granderson single later, Strasburg came out and Drew Storen came in; two pitches later, a hanging Storen slider met the bat of Yoenis Cespedes and ended up in the visitors' bullpen in leftfield. The 2–2 tie was now a 4–2 deficit, and as a shell-shocked Storen stared out to where Cespedes’s moonshot had landed, a jubilant New York dugout erupted in cheers and high fives.

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The game continued from there, but there was no point. Not even after Bryce Harper’s long solo homer off of Tyler Clippard in the bottom of the eighth—his second of the game and 36th of the season—cut the Mets’ lead to one, and especially not after rookie Michael Conforto bumped the lead back up to two with an RBI single in the ninth off of the beleaguered Jonathan Papelbon. The bottom of the ninth was a formality, with Jeurys Familia easily mowing down the bottom of the Nationals’ order to collect his third save of the series and turn the inevitable into an absolute final. But there was no need to subject the Nationals to the final 1 1/2 innings of Wednesday’s game: It, as well as the race for the NL East, had ended the moment Cespedes sent Storen’s slider hurtling into the seats.

It was Cespedes’s home run that finished the Nationals, but there was no one person to blame among Washington's roster. Storen’s two appearances in the series were disastrous—on Tuesday, he gave up a three-run double to Cespedes and walked three, including Lucas Duda with the bases loaded, to help turn a 7–1 Nationals lead into a 7–7 tie, before allowing the game-winning homer to Cespedes on Wednesday—and he has been miserable since the start of August, allowing 14 runs in 16 2/3 innings in that span. But the rest of the bullpen did little to distinguish itself, no matter which reliever Williams called upon or when. In a rare change for the Nationals’ skipper, he even went to Papelbon in two straight non-save situations, only to see his closer give up runs both times out, including the game-winning homer to Kirk Nieuwenhuis on Tuesday.

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The offense, meanwhile, seemed stunned into silence after Tuesday’s meltdown: In the final 12 2/3 innings of the series, the Nationals managed just three runs, two coming off the bat of Harper on towering solo home runs. The 22-year-old superstar had hit just .214/.333/.304 in 15 games against the Mets this season going into Wednesday, and though he remains the obvious and correct choice for NL MVP, it was hard not to contrast his struggles against New York with Cespedes’s absurd feats since joining the Mets (.307/.354/.660 with 13 homers before Wednesday). Nonetheless, Harper was not at fault for Wednesday’s loss, or for any part of the Nationals’ disappointing season to date; it’s frightening to think how much worse they would be without him.

Then there was Strasburg. Amid what has been a season lost to injuries, he reminded everyone of his almost limitless greatness, effortlessly pitching his way through a Mets lineup that had hung 16 runs on Washington in the first two games of the series. With his two-seam fastball sitting at 96 mph, his four-seamer touching 98 and his curveball dipping and diving, Strasburg was untouchable. Of his 103 pitches, he got swings and misses on 14 of them, eight alone on the curve. His 13 strikeouts, eight swinging, were a season high, and at one point, he retired 12 straight hitters; his lone mistake was a letter-high fastball that Travis d’Arnaud roped into leftfield for a solo homer in the second inning. He was so dominant that, despite the Nats having a runner on second with two outs and a one-run lead in the bottom of the seventh, Williams left in Strasburg (at 91 pitches) to bat. The righthander grounded out, then came back out for the eighth, where it took all of three pitches for his masterpiece to fall apart.

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For Williams, the eighth inning was one final indignity in a series in which he was equal parts stupid and snakebitten. A poor tactical manager at best, Williams simply couldn’t do anything right in the most important series of his team’s season. He panicked with his bullpen management in Monday’s loss, and the only thing more perplexing than his decision to bunt in the ninth inning of Tuesday’s defeat was his rationale behind it. But on Wednesday, no matter which button he pushed or which pitcher he turned to, it all went wrong. Despite Johnson’s homer, no manager could be faulted for sticking with a dominant Strasburg to start the eighth, and while his usage of Storen coming off a demoralizing and draining outing on Tuesday can be questioned, the truth is that Williams has no one else to trust in his bullpen. He was damned when he did and damned when he didn’t, and as a result, last year’s NL Manager of the Year may find himself updating his resume in less than a month.

With three weeks remaining in the regular season, there will be plenty of time to pick the scapegoats for one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory. A Nationals team that was supposed to cruise to a division title—one that came into the year as the World Series favorite, one for which 100 wins was practically preordained—will instead play out the string, watching its slim playoff hopes grow dimmer with each passing day. Before the Nationals even took the field Wednesday, Baseball Prospectus estimated their playoff odds to be a mere 5.8%, a number that will undoubtedly shrink even more when the standings are updated on Thursday morning. It will all culminate in the final series of the season, a three-game trip to Queens in which nothing will be on the line, save playoff seeding for a Mets team en route to its first division title since 2006.

VERDUCCI: Collins and Mets looking to avoid another September collapse

It’s easy to imagine that, before the year started, the Nationals likely pictured that early October series against the Mets as a victory lap, a celebration before they put the regular season behind them and turned to the playoffs. As the season went on and Washington failed to pull away with the division—in fact, saw the NL East slip out of the team’s grasp and watched New York jump in front—it’s possible that the Nationals assumed the three-game set would now be a deciding, crowning clash. Instead, those three games will be a coronation for the Mets, the exclamation point on an unlikely and seemingly unstoppable run to the playoffs.

As for the Nationals? That final series will be meaningless, except for the stats compiled. Wednesday night’s loss all but sealed that.

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