ST LOUIS – Just when a sleepy Nationals lineup came through with an inspired rally to take a seemingly comfortable late lead over the Cardinals, a rusty closer managed to turn what should've been an uplifting victory tonight into a crushing defeat.
Handed a four-run lead for the bottom of the ninth at Busch Stadium, Kyle Finnegan promptly gave up five runs to hand his team a 6-5 loss, Tommy Edman's two-run double to deep left field just off a diving Alex Call's glove the final blow that left what remained of a crowd of 34,715 delirious and left the Nats devastated.
"Hey, when you close games, some days go well, some don't," manager Davey Martinez said. "The biggest thing for me is you've got to come in there, up four runs, and you've got to pound the strike zone. Walks are going to kill you."
Finnegan hadn't pitched in six days even though the Nationals had won three times on this road trip, because all of those wins were lopsided. Martinez summoned him tonight in a non-save situation simply because he needed the work. It backfired.
"I didn't feel rusty," Finnegan insisted. "I just couldn't make the pitch when I needed to. The stuff was getting a little too much of the plate, and they were doing their job. They were hitting mistakes and doing damage with it. I just wasn't able to make a pitch to get us out of it tonight."
Finnegan immediately got into a jam via an infield single in which a chopper to third took a strange hop and struck César Hernández in the face, then a walk, then an RBI double to Nolan Arenado, then an RBI groundout by Corey Dickerson. Another walk brought the winning run to the plate, and though Finnegan struck out Nolan Gorman for the second out of the inning, he could not record the third out as his pitch count topped 30.
Hunter Harvey was warming as this played out, but Martinez didn't intend to remove his closer while the game could still be won in the ninth.
"Unless they tie the game, then we'll do something different," the manager said. "But he's our guy. He got two outs. OK, just make your pitches."
Yadier Molina's single to left made it 5-4 and brought Edman to the plate with two runners on. Edman proceeded to hit a drive to deep left field that deflected off a leaping Call's glove and fell to the ground as both the tying and winning runs scored to give the Cardinals a dramatic victory and leave Finnegan walking off the mound in disbelief.
"That was an incredible effort," the reliever said of Call's attempt to make a game-saving catch. "For him to even put himself in position to make a play on it was unbelievable. That's a kid that plays really hard for us, and you can see it out there. Just no regard for himself right there, trying to win the game for us. That's all you can ask for. It was an unbelievable attempt by him."
All this came after an impressive rally helped the Nationals take a 5-1 lead into that final frame. It began with Hernández’s two-out, RBI triple in the seventh, the game-tying hit and the hit that knocked a previously dominant Jordan Montgomery from the game. It then continued in the eighth with a flurry of clutch, two-out knocks.
The go-ahead RBI came off the bat of Joey Meneses, who after a rare quiet showing up to that point reached out and made contact with a low-and-away slider from reliever Giovanny Gallegos, poking the ball into shallow right field for his 43rd hit in 31 career big league games, this one scoring pinch-runner Call from second to give the Nationals a 2-1 lead.
Luke Voit then absolutely destroyed a 3-1 slider from Gallegos (one of the players the Cardinals acquired from the Yankees for him in a 2018 trade) some 424 feet over the left field bullpen for a killer, tack-on homer. And when Nelson Cruz and Luis García added two more singles after that, the Nationals had gone from an inept night at the plate to a 5-1 lead in the blink of an eye.
"I saw a lot of good things today, a lot of positive things," Martinez said. "Starting with our pitching. They kept us in the ballgame. We come back. César with a big triple there. We come back, score some runs, and I thought we played really well today up until the last inning."
Cory Abbott has flown under the radar this season, bouncing back and forth between the majors and Triple-A Rochester, not to mention back and forth between the Nationals rotation and bullpen. The 26-year-old hasn’t solidified a permanent spot anywhere yet, but he’s been fairly effective no matter the role, and he continued that trend tonight.
Over the course of 4 1/3 innings, Abbott allowed only one run. That came on Paul Goldschmidt’s leadoff homer in the fourth, a 400-foot blast off a 2-1 slider on the inside corner that moved the Triple Crown contender to within one homer of National League leader Kyle Schwarber. (Goldschmidt already leads in RBIs and batting average.)
Otherwise, Abbott was highly effective. He pitched around a pair of singles in the bottom of the first. He retired seven in row prior to the Goldschmidt homer. He struck out five without issuing a walk. But after surrendering a one-out double to Molina in the bottom of the fifth, he was pulled with his pitch count at 88.
"Very meh," Abbott said when asked how he'd evaluate his start. "I just threw too many balls. I didn't finish five (innings). I was really trying to go seven. It's very meh."
Because his teammates failed to supply him with any run support while he was in the game, Abbott found himself in line to take the loss. Fortunately for the right-hander, some run support finally arrived a couple innings later, taking him off the hook.
Stymied for six innings by Montgomery, the Nationals looked feeble at the plate. They did not strand a runner in scoring position against the Cardinals left-hander, because they never had a runner in scoring position against him. For six innings, the entirety of the Nats offense was made up of two Voit singles and a Victor Robles walk.
Then came the seventh, and at long last something to get excited about. It began with a one-out walk drawn by Cruz, who continues to hit the ball into the ground when he swings but managed to lay off four pitches out of the zone in his third plate appearance of the night to get himself on base.
Two batters later, Hernández (who hit his long-awaited first homer of the season Sunday in New York) ripped a ball to the gap in right-center. By the time the Cardinals could get the ball back in, Cruz had scored all the way from first and Hernández was standing on third with a game-tying RBI triple.
As it turns out, that was merely the precursor to plenty more drama that would come before this game was over.
"They did their job," Finnegan said. "They got the big hits."