WASHINGTON - The Mets did not have Johan Santana leave Puerto Rico early in advance of yesterday's start against the Nationals. As a result, Santana was among the parade of zombies that arrived at the team hotel around 7 o'clock that morning, exhausted from a three-day stay in San Juan that ended with a rain-soaked finale.
Of course, Santana was the only player that did not appear the least bit tired when he took the mound later that night at Nationals Park. That was the problem. While Santana looked the most dominant he has been all year, striking out seven in seven innings, the Mets - with a patchwork lineup - seemed asleep at the plate.
But in the ninth inning, with the score tied at 1, things got really interesting. When the Nationals loaded the bases with one out, Jerry Manuel brought in Ryota Igarashi to relieve Pedro Feliciano (2-4) and went to a five-man infield - pulling in leftfielder Jesus Feliciano to play to the left of second base.
Santana, who was 1-3 with a 5.96 ERA in his previous four starts, spent the week working with pitching coach Dan Warthen on better disguising his delivery. In going back to the lowered glove technique, he did not appear to be tipping Thursday. Santana got plenty of swings and misses with his changeup and slider, which mixed well with a fastball that topped out at 92 mph.
Twice through the first six inning Santana stranded the tying run at second base, but the Nationals finally got to him in the seventh. Ian Desmond, who missed a home run by inches in the fifth, opened with a single, and two outs later stood at third base thanks to a wild pitch.
Next up was Nyjer Morgan, who was hitless in three at-bats and had struck out twice. Santana evened the count at 2-and-2 before Morgan smacked a 92-mph fastball through the left side of the infield for the tying single.
Injuries to Jose Reyes and Angel Pagan forced Manuel to get creative with his lineup for the second straight night. Once again, Jesus Feliciano replaced Reyes in the leadoff spot and took over for Pagan in centerfield before shifting to left. Manuel put Ruben Tejada back at No. 2 behind Feliciano and, in a surprising move, also did not have Jason Bay in the starting lineup.
With so many key players hurting, the timing on Bay seemed a little odd. But Manuel cited his 3-for-14 history against Nationals starter Livan Hernandez and figured Bay could use a breather. That left Jeff Francoeur and Chris Carter hitting behind Ike Davis - and not much firepower to back Santana.
But the road-weary Mets showed some early life in taking a 1-0 lead in the first. Feliciano opened with a single to center and was bunted to second by Tejada.
That set up David Wright, who wrapped June as the only player in Mets history to bat at least .400 with 25 or more RBIs in a calendar month. The cagey Hernandez whiffed Wright, but Davis, who was 1-for-11 on the trip, finished the job with a run-scoring single to rightfield.
Hernandez had a career mark of 12-13 with a 4.38 ERA against the Mets, but he remains capable of frustrating a team into submission on any given night. Hernandez beat the Mets on April 11 with seven scoreless innings and he nearly matched that effort Thursday, only this time he was more baffling during the same stretch with seven strikeouts.
The Nationals came within three inches of tying the score when Desmond led off the fifth with a long drive that barely caught the edge of the padded wall adjacent to the Mets' bullpen in left-centerfield. In that spot, the stadium actually has two walls that separate the field from the bleachers, and both are the same shade of green.
For that reason, the umpires had trouble figuring out what happened when Desmond's fly ball kicked off the top of the padding and dropped onto Carter. After a video review the umpires determined that it was indeed a double. But Santana retired the next three batters to strand Desmond.