WASHINGTON — Everything about Rafael Montero screamed fear, from the rigid movements of his body to his perplexing unwillingness to throw the baseball anywhere near the plate.
The Mets had seen this before. Once a highly regarded prospect, Montero wilted in his previous chances to impress in the big leagues. But injuries to the pitching staff and desperation created this latest opportunity, one he again wasted.
By the end of the Mets’ 8-1 loss to the Nationals last night, Montero’s participation had been relegated to little more than a distant, painful memory.
“This is the big leagues,” manager Terry Collins said after announcing that Montero has been bumped from the rotation, too volatile to trust with a wild card on the line. “And I think when you take the mound at the major-league level, there are expectations, and one is to trust your stuff and throw the ball over the plate.”
Montero did neither. The Nationals pounded him for six runs and five hits in 1 2⁄3 innings. Of the 60 pitches he was allowed to throw, only 30 found the strike zone, an unacceptable ratio.
“I came out to try to do my job,” Montero said through a translator. “But things didn’t work out. I’ve just got to thank God for the opportunity to continue to work hard.”
The fallout from Montero’s demise could have been contained so it would not torpedo the team’s chance to win. But Collins was too slow to act, sticking with the right hander despite a brutal first inning in which he established that he was fearful of throwing strikes.
“We considered it,” Collins said, though he added that he wanted to give Montero a chance to “settle down and pitch.”
Daniel Murphy went 3-for-4, giving him at least one hit in each of the 17 games he’s played against his former team.
But the Mets found some consolation. Locked in a three-team race for two playoff spots, they did not lose ground, remaining a half-game ahead of the Cardinals for the second wild card.
Montero issued three walks in the first, including two with the bases loaded. Of his 37 pitches in that awful frame, 19 failed to cross home plate. He was fortunate to limit the damage to two runs.
But when given a perfect window to pull Montero in the second, Collins let him hit for himself. With the Mets down only 2-1 and the tying run at second base, Montero struck out. Then the punishment really began.
Opposing pitcher Mat Latos cracked the fourth homer of his career. It came on a full count, with Montero too timid to challenge a lifetime .131 hitter. And it got worse from there.
Anthony Rendon delivered the body blow that sent Montero to the showers, a towering three-run blast into the leftfield stands that ended the competitive portion of the evening. Only then did Collins emerge from the dugout. He paid for leaving Montero in the game despite expanded rosters and a bevy of arms in the bullpen.
“It’s pretty frustrating because he does have good stuff,” Collins said. “You can see when he’s actually throwing strikes, there’s not a lot of good swings. But he gets himself in trouble because he gets behind in counts.”
For a third straight day, Collins left himself open to criticism.
On Saturday, he neglected to pinch run for Wilmer Flores, who represented the go-ahead run on second base in the eighth inning of a tie game. One of the slowest runners on the team, Flores was thrown out at the plate and injured his neck while trying to score on a single. The Mets lost by a run in extra innings. Afterward, Collins admitted he had become preoccupied with lining up his relievers in case of extra innings, thus losing track of the game situation that unfolded before him.
On Sunday, a 10-3 thrashing of the Braves, Yoenis Cespedes played the full game and Asdrubal Cabrera was not pulled until the eighth. Both are playing through leg injuries.
There could be reinforcements on the horizon. Working their way back from arm trouble, Steven Matz and Jacob deGrom have ramped up their throwing sessions.
“I let it go a little bit,” deGrom said after a 35-pitch session yesterday that inched him closer to a return. He might pitch in relief to ease his way back, just in time for a rotation that clearly needs some help.