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Bullpen collapse stuns Mets into silence as season appears all but over

Mets relief pitcher Edwin Diaz, right, walks off

Mets relief pitcher Edwin Diaz, right, walks off the field as Washington Nationals' Juan Soto scores on Kurt Suzuki's game-winning three-run home run during the ninth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019, in Washington. Washington won 11-10. Credit: AP/Patrick Semansky

WASHINGTON -- The schedule says the Mets have 24 games left. Any reasonable person, however, will tell you that the 2019 season ended Tuesday night, at Nationals Park, by virtue of a historic 11-10 loss that defied any logical explanation.

And it all boils down to this simple fact: if the Mets’ bullpen can’t get three outs in the ninth inning before the opposing team scores seven runs, then it’s time to stop pretending.

“A game like that,” Jeff McNeil said, “we’ve got to win.”

Regardless of where the Mets sit in the wild-card race, or the longshot playoff scenarios that can be imagined, or how resilient this club has been, what happened Tuesday night can’t happen. To a man, the Mets know this to be true. And for really the first time, everyone inside their clubhouse didn’t sound as confident as they did only hours earlier.

To see the Nationals relentlessly dismantle Paul Sewald, Luis Avilan and ultimately Edwin Diaz during that seven-run ninth, with Kurt Suzuki hammering a 100-mph fastball for the three-run walkoff blast, was surreal. It shook the Mets to their core, and they remained in that shell-shocked state long afterward.

“When I came in here, I didn’t really know what just happened,” Brandon Nimmo said. “It kind of just seemed like a bad dream. I don’t know. That’s hard to do even in a Little League game I feel, come back from [six] runs down in the bottom of the ninth against guys throwing 99 miles an hour. I don’t really have words for that.”

There are none. The Mets’ postgame clubhouse was stone silent. No one talked, some players exited quickly. It was so quiet that you could occasionally hear a fork scraping a plate in the adjacent kitchen area. What could they say?

Jacob deGrom had carried the Mets to the eighth inning before giving up a two-run homer to Juan Soto that ended his night, but still left them with a 5-4 lead. Seth Lugo held it by getting the next three outs, but he was no longer needed after the Mets erupted for five runs in the ninth, including homers by Nimmo and Pete Alonso, and Jeff McNeil’s two-run double.

McNeil capitalized on what appeared to be a fatal mistake by Trea Turner, who mistakenly thought there were two outs and bypassed a double play for a routine throw to first base. With the inning still alive, McNeil then humiliated him further.

It was second costly blunder by the Nats -- the team leading the wild-card race, by the way -- with the first coming on Matt Adams’ base-running blunder in the sixth. Adams failing to run on Kurt Suzuki’s liner off the centerfield wall turned it into a single and then set up an inning-ending double play that killed a potential rally.

The Nats deserved to lose by playing such stupid baseball, and the Mets looked ready to oblige them. In taking a 10-4 lead to the ninth, Mickey Callaway pulled Lugo, sat down the previously warming Diaz and went to his low-leverage option, Sewald. The Mets were going into baseball’s equivalent of the victory formation. Line up for three more outs, flip the ball to umpire, post the W.

“When you have a six-run lead,” Callaway said, “major-league pitchers have got to be able to hold that.”

This was not a case of managerial strategy gone wrong, or an opportunity to second-guess.  The ninth inning was supposed to be procedural, nothing more. But Sewald recorded only one out from the five Nats he faced, and Avilan -- summoned for the lefty Soto -- got a ground ball, but it barely skipped past McNeil for a single that loaded the bases.

Callaway then called on Diaz, who supposedly had been fixed recently by going to deGrom’s slider grip, and pinch-hitter Ryan Zimmerman ripped his second pitch -- a 99-mph fastball -- for a double that soared over the diving Michael Conforto in rightfield.

“The difference is that team didn’t let up,” Diaz said afterward through an interpreter.

And with the tying run 180 feet away, Diaz got to two strikes against Suzuki, but he jumped on the eighth pitch of the at-bat, that triple-digit heater, to drive it deep over the leftfield wall. As the Mets watched that ball disappear, they probably witnessed their playoff dream vanish along with it.

“That was really tough,” McNeil said. “It might be the toughest of the season. We had it.”

Until they didn’t. And while there’s another game tomorrow, and the next day, what was shaping up to be a meaningful September already feels over.

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