WASHINGTON — After the Mets’ 5-3 loss Tuesday to the Nationals, the context inspired a familiar conclusion: They could have had this one.
They stranded six runners on base in the final four innings against the Washington relief core, collecting zero hits in four at-bats with runners in scoring position.
For manager Luis Rojas, that the Mets made it close was a source of consolation.
After Steven Matz allowed five runs in three innings, the bullpen held it there and Michael Conforto’s two-run homer off Patrick Corbin (three runs, 5 2/3 innings) helped the Mets claw back.
But then the clawing ended. The Mets are 4-8.
“The guys battled,” Rojas said. “The guys are competing. You definitely are proud of your guys when they’re competing until the last out of the game.”
The greatest missed opportunity came in the seventh, when the Mets’ first two hitters reached. Pete Alonso struck out, Wilson Ramos flied out to center and Conforto flied out to left.
The Mets also had a failed rally with two outs in the sixth, when Ryan Cordell and Andres Gimenez (2-for-4) singled. Rojas stuck with No. 9 batter Tomas Nido — a career .191 hitter — who grounded out to shortstop to end the threat.
Jeff McNeil (strained right intercostal) and Amed Rosario (tight left quad) were hurt but still on the active roster, leaving Rojas with one genuine pinch-hit option: Dominic Smith.
As was the case in similar situations last week, Rojas opted not to use Smith as a pinch hitter during the sixth-inning almost rally. Doing so would have necessitated the major-league debut of third-string catcher Ali Sanchez, who was called up Monday, or moving Ramos to behind the plate, thus eliminating the Mets’ DH spot.
The Mets ostensibly have carried three catchers for most of the season — first Rene Rivera, who is injured, and now Sanchez — so that they can more easily, for example, run for Ramos or hit for Nido.
Smith ended up batting in the eighth. He struck out with one runner on.
“Having Ramos in the DH spot, it kind of limits you to make that aggressive change in the sixth inning like that,” Rojas said. “Not having Ramos as the DH would’ve been a different case.”
Matz turned in a dud, raising his ERA on the season — three starts — to 5.65. Burning him most was the middle of the Nationals’ lineup, filled with post-prime infielders. Howie Kendrick, Asdrubal Cabrera, Starlin Castro and Josh Harrison (playing left) were 6-for-7 with four RBIs and four runs scored against Matz.
Kendrick homered in the first. Harrison, signed by Washington last week after getting released by the Phillies, homered in the second. Castro, Harrison and rookie third baseman Carter Kieboom drove in runs in the third.
Matz blamed the badness on his fastball “leaking back over the middle of the plate.” It boiled down to fastball grip, he said, and he expects it to be an easy fix for next time. He is considering abandoning his four-seam fastball altogether.
“That’s something I’m going to look at hard,” Matz said.
Amid the bullpen’s scoreless five frames, Dellin Betances and Edwin Diaz each tossed a scoreless inning. For Diaz, it was his second in as many appearances, both times pitching while the Mets were losing.
The Mets encountered their first rain delay, for 66 minutes after the seventh inning. MLB is wary of prolonged delays this year, since there is so much focus on limiting time at the ballpark, but the teams waited it out.
“We definitely came in and we were very careful about staying apart, making sure that we’re distancing and (doing) everything we need to do,” Rojas said. “It was different, but it was something that we were expecting. We made it work.”
Matz said: “It’s pretty much the same thing, other than the fact guys are trying to stay apart and wear a mask and stuff. That was the biggest difference.”