Photo by Rachel Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Garrett Mock's 3 1/3-inning start set the tone for tonight's loss.
-- Garrett Mock was yanked after 3 1/3 innings, having thrown 84 pitches.
-- Jason Bergmann, Jesse English and Tyler Walker combined to allow three runs in a span of four batters in the seventh.
Now the real question: Which development was less surprising?
Unfortunately, we've come to expect such exploits from these pitchers. Mock seems to take the mound hoping just to get through five innings, while the Nationals' middle relievers seem to take the mound hoping just to retire the first batter they face.
When you put all that together, the result isn't pretty. The result is a lopsided loss to a Mets club that is missing several key starters and tonight looked ripe for a beating.
Instead, the Nats are 1-3 heading into the season's first weekend, trying to overcome both their fast-exiting starting rotation and their suspect middle relief.
"It's tough," catcher Ivan Rodriguez said. "But at the same time, we've got to keep playing. There's still a lot of games left, the whole season left. It's only four games. We've just got to make the adjustments, get our starting pitchers to give us some innings and get some guys out."
John Lannan (five runs in 3 2/3 innings on Opening Day) couldn't do it. Neither could Jason Marquis (six runs in four innings) or Craig Stammen (four runs in five innings). And Mock most definitely couldn't do it tonight during a laborious outing that looked very much like his laborious outings of a year ago.
Mock, who repeatedly made a point all spring to "attack hitters," needed 29 pitches to get through the first inning tonight. He wound up allowing four hits, issuing five walks and serving up two homers into a stiff wind blowing in from left field that he believes also affected his ability to pitch.
The combination of the wind and sub-50 degree temperature made it difficult to get a good grip on the ball and locate it within the strike zone.
"I'm not going to sit there and say it's the baseball's fault," Mock said. "But I mean, I just couldn't get a grip on it. I did everything I could, from trying to keep my hands moist to licking my fingers, anything I could to get some kind of tack on the ball. It just really was uncomfortable."
(For what it's worth, Mets starter Mike Pelfrey didn't seem too fazed by the wind in recording a quality start. And Walker refused to use the conditions as an excuse for his shaky performance out of the bullpen.)
Mock, though, seems like he's searching for answers these days. In the span of three weeks, he's gone from the best-looking starter in camp not named Strasburg to a starter who may be pitching to keep his job next time out.
"Mentally, he's being aggressive. He's firing. He's challenging hitters," manager Jim Riggleman said. "But he's just not throwing quality strikes. ... I don't think it's a lack of aggression on his part. I just think it's a lack of execution."
None of Riggleman's starters have executed during the season's first week. Eventually, a Washington starter is going to go six innings, right? Right?
Tonight's starter wasn't thinking too much about the collective performance of the rotation but rather his own situation.
"I mean, collectively, we're all individuals," Mock said, channeling Yogi Berra. "Every guy that goes out to the mound, yeah, we're trying to get six-plus every time out. A night like tonight, it's up to the manager whenever he makes a move. Tonight he made a good move. But for me, I don't have a pitch limit on me. That's for Skip to do. If it takes me 164 pitches to get through six innings, I'm going to do that."
(Note to Garrett: You're never going to be allowed to throw 164 pitches in six innings. If you're on pace to do that, chances are you'll be yanked before the Presidents' Race is run.)
All these short outings from Nationals starters have had a domino effect on the club's bullpen. Not that those eight relievers are overworked only four games into the season. But with his starters averaging less than 4 1/3 innings a piece, Riggleman has been forced to use the worst members of his bullpen (Bergmann, English, Walker, Miguel Batista) instead of the best members of the unit (Matt Capps, Brian Bruney, Tyler Clippard).
"There's no excuses for any failures we've had in the bullpen," the manager said. "But if your starters go three-to-five innings, it will cause problems that you can't solve. We've obviously got to pitch deeper in games."
And when those relievers are called upon -- whether it's the fifth inning or the eighth inning -- they need to be able to put the fire out instantaneously, not fan the flames.
Here's the bang-your-head-against-the-wall stat of the day: Nationals relievers have made 17 appearances so far this season. They've managed to retire the first batter they face only five times.
English and Walker were the victims tonight, allowing an RBI single and a two-run homer on consecutive pitches in the seventh inning. What had been a nip-and-tuck ballgame instead morphed into a Mets rout.
"Relieving's a lot like blackjack," Walker said. "You know your fate instantly."
Right now, Washington's bullpen keeps busting.