NEW YORK -- As the night wore on and they helplessly flailed away at every 84 mph fastball Chris Young flung toward the plate, there was perhaps no sweeter sight for the Nationals than that of the Mets bullpen door swinging open for the top of the eighth and someone other than the 6-foot-10 right-hander trotting to the mound.
"When he came out of the game, some of the guys felt better," left fielder Michael Morse said. "I know me, I felt better."
It took two more innings of unproductive swings, but finally in the top of the 10th the Nationals took advantage of the worst bullpen in baseball, pounding Pedro Beato into submission during a six-run explosion that led to one of the odder line scores you'll ever see: Nationals 8, Mets 2 (10).
"It's kind of the makeup of our team," Morse said. "We just never quit. ... We just kept coming, kept pushing. Lately, it doesn't matter how many runs you get, you just have to keep adding them and keep going."
What had been a tense pitchers' duel played under a light rain, with Young and Jordan Zimmermann swapping zeroes, turned into a lopsided Nationals victory once the game advanced beyond regulation. Held to four hits through nine innings (three in the first, one in the ninth) they exploded for five in the top of the 10th alone, four of them coming in rapid-fire succession.
It began with a Roger Bernadina single that ricocheted off left-hander Tim Byrdak. Bernadina then helped break up a potential double play by sliding hard into shortstop Ruben Tejada, spikes against shin. A botched sacrifice bunt attempt by Mark DeRosa led to an out and took the speedy Bernadina off the basepaths. But Steve Lombardozzi's single up the middle loaded the bases and set the stage for the meat of the Nationals' lineup to deliver when it really counted.
First up was Bryce Harper, who had clubbed a two-run homer way back in the top of the first, and now smoked an 0-1 curveball from Beato over the second baseman's head, bringing home the go-ahead run.
Harper's strategy in that situation?
"Don't roll over and turn it into a double play," the 19-year-old said. "That was the only thing I was thinking up there. I was trying to get some backspin on something and just get it to the outfield, score the guy on third. In that situation, that's all you try to do."
The bases still loaded, Ryan Zimmerman stepped up. The hottest hitter in the NL over the last month wasn't the least bit relaxed now that his team held a 3-2 lead.
"No. We want to get as many runs as we can," he said. "Especially in that situation with less than two outs and the bases loaded. We needed to tack on a few there."
So Zimmerman calmly mashed a double to the gap in right-center. DeRosa scored. Lombardozzi scored. Harper scored, nearly lapping Lombardozzi in the process.
"I didn't think anything of it," Harper said. "Third base coach Bo Porter said: 'You gotta go.' I thought: 'If he slides in front of me, I better slide the other way.'"
Now leading 6-2, Morse dug in knowing he could take as big a hack as he liked. Boy, did he ever, launching the ball to deep right-center for his sixth homer in 31 games and turning this once nip-and-tuck ballgame into an 8-2 laugher for the visitors.
"It was nice that the bats woke up," Davey Johnson said.
The 69-year-old manager had made a couple of curious decisions with his pitching staff that perhaps allowed the game to reach extra innings in the first place. He pulled Zimmermann after six stellar innings and only 89 pitches, though he explained that was his plan all along, not wanting to push the young starter too far knowing he'll need him to remain fresh come September and beyond.
Zimmermann, who now has pitched at least six innings in all 20 of his starts and boasts an 0.95 ERA over his last six games, seemed to understand his manager's thinking.
"Yeah, I think so," he said. "I haven't been throwing too many pitches, so it's a long season and we still have a long ways to go. I hope I'm still fresh at the end of the year."
With Zimmermann out of the game, Johnson turned to Drew Storen to face slugger David Wright in the bottom of the seventh. And that's all he faced, because Johnson returned to take the ball from the recently activated right-hander after he got Wright to fly out to deep center field.
Johnson is still trying to ease Storen (who missed 3 12 months following elbow surgery) back into a late-inning role, and the right-hander said he knew this appearance would be brief. But it still had to be painful to watch lefty Michael Gonzalez enter and immediately serve up a game-tying home run to Ike Davis on his very first pitch.
"I'm still organizing the bullpen to where I'm comfortable with it," Johnson said. "I don't want to constantly put the heat on Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard. I have a lot of confidence in all the guys out there, I just need to get them a little more lined-up here so I feel comfortable with them and they feel comfortable."
The method might have been a bit unconventional, but ultimately it worked. Ryan Mattheus pitched a scoreless eighth, and Tom Gorzelanny kept the Mets from scoring in both the ninth and 10th innings to secure the win.
Combined with the Braves' loss in Miami, the Nationals saw their lead in the NL East jump to 4 12 games.
All thanks to a sudden flurry of clutch hits from a team that for nine previous innings could barely buy one against the Mets.
"We're a confident team," Zimmerman said. "We know if we can hang around and give ourselves a chance, that's all we need."