WASHINGTON - The Mets anticipate Luis Castillo returning from the disabled list shortly after the All-Star break, but the need for him diminishes by the day, and that was never more apparent than Friday night at Nationals Park.
Alex Cora, making his third consecutive start at second base, backed Jonathon Niese with a bases-loaded triple for his first three-RBI game since 2007. But it was Ruben Tejada, the middle infielder subbing for the injured Jose Reyes, who ultimately preserved the Mets' 5-3 victory over the Nationals.
With two outs in the ninth inning, runners at first and second and two runs already in, a laboring Francisco Rodriguez slipped to a 3-and-2 count against pinch hitter Willie Harris. But with Roger Bernadina straying way off second base, Tejada broke behind him, grabbed K-Rod's pickoff throw and slapped the tag on Bernadina to end the game.
"I'll tell you what, for a 20-year-old to make that call - and it was his call - that's instincts taking over," Cora said. "To have the presence of mind to do that in that situation, he's showed me that defensively he's ahead of a lot of people."
Tejada also scored the game's first run in the first inning after getting drilled in the back and made another great defensive play when he glided behind the bag to rob Joel Peralta of a base hit in the fifth. But to stay cool enough to execute that game-ending pickoff was the most impressive thing.
"With the count 3-and-2 and two outs, it's the situation for that," said Tejada, who flashed his glove to signal K-Rod.
Rodriguez said he had never before finished a game by picking off a runner at second base. He had allowed a pair of RBI singles to Bernadina and Ian Desmond, so he looked as though he could use a bailout. "I give all the credit to him," said Rodriguez, who earned his 19th save.
After the Mets did nothing to back Johan Santana's fine effort in Thursday's 2-1 loss, it was up to Cora to rescue Niese in the fourth inning.
The Mets loaded the bases with none out, but two outs later, they still hadn't scored. Then Cora hammered a high fly ball toward the rightfield wall. Mike Morse appeared to track it, but his leap was a little off, and the ball caromed off the giant scoreboard for a triple that gave the Mets a 4-0 lead. Niese then drove in Cora with the first double of his career and first RBI.
Cora has never hit a grand slam, and when asked if he thought this one was going out, he replied, "I don't know what 'out' is."
Niese improved to 5-0 with a 2.43 ERA in six starts since coming off the disabled list on June 5. He allowed six hits, did not give up a walk and had a career-high eight strikeouts.
Notes & quotes: The Mets signed former Yankees reliever Brian Bruney, who is best known for his on-field confrontation with K-Rod during last year's Subway Series in the Bronx. Asked about the move, Rodriguez said, "I was the first one to text him. I said welcome to the family." A moment later, K-Rod said he was joking, and added, "It's behind us. We're now in the same family." Bruney will report to Buffalo . . . Jose Reyes will not play Saturday because of the strained muscle in his right side, and Jerry Manuel is holding out hope that he can return to the lineup in Sunday's series finale. That looks doubtful, however, as Reyes did not take batting practice Friday . . . Carlos Beltran went 2-for-3 as the DH Friday for Class A St. Lucie and later said of his knee, "It doesn't bother me at all and I am ready to take the next step.''