WASHINGTON — Three months ago, Matt Harvey strutted around the Nationals’ mound here during one of the most important starts of his young career, his first since having Tommy John surgery. He fired fastballs at will, snapped his slider like a whip, struck out Bryce Harper three times and announced to the baseball world that he was back.
During his start here Monday, the lasting image of Harvey was him turning, his hands out, watching as a Clint Robinson double ricocheted high off the center-field wall in the third inning. Harvey’s command looked off, and this time, the Nationals did not look intimidated. Harvey often walked off the mound in conversation with catcher Anthony Recker, searching for answers.
The Mets had aligned their starters after the All-Star break with this series in mind. They wanted to line up Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, their three best starters, to make a run at the Nationals, the National League East leaders.
Harvey lost the first game, 7-2, in humbling and conflicting fashion. He allowed five early runs and issued four walks, yet he lasted seven innings and even drove in two runs. Harvey was not at his best, but his offense and his defense repeatedly failed him.
The Nationals had appeared weak, ripe for the Mets to strike. Jayson Werth, Denard Span, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman are all out injured — and Harvey seemed to pitch around Harper at first, walking him twice, the second time on four pitches.
But the Nationals were deep enough and composed enough to compensate. Robinson, the journeyman replacing Zimmerman, doubled in two runs. Yunel Escobar singled in a run in the first. And the Nationals twice scored runs capitalizing on the Mets’ ineptitude: once while the Mets were distracted during a rundown, and again on a Daniel Murphy throwing error.
The Mets’ starting lineup was just as indistinguishable from that opening series in April. It included Recker, Ruben Tejada, John Mayberry Jr. and Eric Campbell — four players who were expected to be backups entering this season. The Mets had also played an 18-inning game the day before, and several of them had admitted to being exhausted; still, they reached base nine times over the first five innings against Gio Gonzalez, who allowed six hits and walked three over six innings.
That made no difference, though. When the Mets come to bat with runners on base, they seem to freeze like an actor with stage fright. They finished the game having stranded 10 base runners, and they now have four hits in their last 72 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
The Mets were saving Michael Cuddyer as a pinch-hitter, on purpose. His balky left knee had acted up the day before, leading him to ask out of a game. He had also had trouble getting on and off the team plane. The Mets’ trainers had him take oral anti-inflammatory medication Monday as a last resort, and they wanted to give it time to take effect. If that did not work, Cuddyer would be placed on the disabled list for some undetermined amount of time.
But the Mets apparently waited too long, and Cuddyer remained on the bench.
The Mets’ lone hit with runners in scoring position Monday came, of course, from their pitcher, Harvey. The Nationals intentionally walked Recker to load the bases with two outs in the fourth inning, and Harvey, facing an 0-2 count, flipped a single into right field, scoring two runs. He had hit a two-run home run in his previous start, in a two-run Mets win.
The Mets’ pitchers now have 17 R.B.I., the most of any pitching staff in baseball.
Harvey recovered on the mound and retired the final 14 batters he faced, taking the Mets through the seventh inning and saving their bullpen after Sunday’s marathon. He pitched as if he were trying to redeem himself after allowing those five early runs. Harvey struck out Harper looking at a stinging 98-mile-per-hour fastball, on his 99th and final pitch.