WASHINGTON -- Rafael Montero grabbed a bat, walked up the dugout steps and began a progression of practice swings, whipping the bat in a wild arc across his shoulder. No one stopped him. No one seemed to question it: Montero was going to hit. After that, Montero was going to keep pitching.
This was merely the second inning of the Mets' 8-1 loss to the Nationals on Monday, but it turned out to be the game's critical juncture. Even though Montero had walked three batters in the first inning, including two with the bases loaded, the Mets trailed by only a run at that point. Strong pitching in the middle innings could have saved them, or at least given their resurgent offense a chance.
Instead, Montero served up four more runs in the bottom of the second, keying a blowout that ensured the Mets would not put any more ground between them and the Cardinals in the National League Wild Card race.
"It's pretty frustrating, because he does have good stuff," manager Terry 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 and ends up giving up good pitches to hit. Energy came out fast."
It was not as if Montero had earned the benefit of the doubt. In two prior starts subbing for Jacob deGrom, Montero walked 10 batters over 9 1/3 innings. Though the Mets won both of them, it seemed only a matter of time before Montero's transgressions caught up with him.
It finally happened in the first inning, when four Nationals batters reached base before Montero recorded an out, bemoaning afterward that "I wasn't getting ahead of the hitters." At that point, rookie Gabriel Ynoa began warming in the bullpen, but Montero escaped the inning largely by inducing swings out of the strike zone. So despite operating with an 18-man pitching staff in September, Collins opted between innings to stick with Montero.
The move was just the latest in a string of curious decisions by Collins, who took the blame Saturday for not pinch-running for Wilmer Flores in the eighth inning of a tie game at Turner Field. Flores subsequently injured his neck attempting -- unsuccessfully -- to score from second base on a single. The Mets lost the game in extra innings, and Flores, still hurting, has not appeared in a game since.
Monday's defeat was not as damaging in the short term; the Cardinals also lost, allowing the Mets to retain a half-game lead for the NL's second Wild Card spot. But it still underscored how important each game is over the season's final three weeks. Almost immediately after the game, Collins announced that Montero will not start again for a Mets team considering "anybody" else for that spot.
"This is the big leagues," Collins said. "When you take the mound at the Major League level, there are expectations. One is to trust your stuff and throw the ball over the plate."
Anthony DiComo has covered the Mets for MLB.com since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo and Facebook, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.