Another ragged night for struggling Nats pitching staff (updated)

For the second straight game, Davey Martinez pulled a struggling starter in the middle innings and entrusted a struggling reliever to keep a close game against a quality opponent close.

And for the second straight game, that struggling reliever not only couldn’t keep the game close, he couldn’t even keep it close enough for his Nationals teammates to have a realistic shot at coming back by night’s end.

Jake Irvin was tonight’s fading starter, and Erasmo Ramirez was tonight’s struggling reliever. They bore a striking resemblance to Trevor Williams and Andrés Machado from two days prior in a loss to the Phillies. In this case, the opponent was the Diamondbacks, who took full advantage of the Nats’ pitching woes during a 10-5 victory that further underscored some major problems for the home club.

"Walks," an unusually and visibly aggravated Martinez lamented. "We're walking too many guys. Hitting batters. Falling behind. Pitching 2-0, 1-0, 3-1. You're not going to win very many games like that. We've got to clean that up."

The Nationals have now lost six of their last eight, and a recurring theme throughout this stretch has been ragged relief pitching, whether in the middle or late innings. The situation already was dire entering the day, with the Nats owning the National League’s worst bullpen ERA (4.73) and WHIP (1.433), and things only got worse.

In the first of six consecutive days they’ll spend facing division leaders – a trip to Atlanta beckons this weekend – the Nationals really hoped for some length from their young starter. Irvin, though, ran into some of the same problems that have plagued him in previous outings, notably an inability to throw strikes with consistency. He walked three batters and hit another during his four-plus innings, and he needed 83 pitches just to reach that juncture of the game.

The Nats did, however, hand Irvin a nice, early lead. Stone Garrett’s first-inning grand slam, coming against his former team and off good friend Tommy Henry, remarkably was the team’s first grand slam at home since Yan Gomes did it against the Pirates on June 15, 2021. (That also happened to be the last time they swept a three-game series from any opponent.)

"It felt freaking good," said Garrett, whom the Nationals claimed off waivers from Arizona over the winter. "That's my best friend pitching. And your old team. Keibert (Ruiz) just hit two home runs off his old team (last week at Dodger Stadium), so it feels good. Revenge game."

Garrett’s blast was much appreciated by the home crowd on the team’s annual “Night OUT,” with former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi delivering the ceremonial first pitch to a rainbow-jersey-wearing Screech. The good vibes, though, didn’t last long.

Irvin didn’t help himself, issuing back-to-back walks of the Arizona No. 8 and No. 9 hitters right after he was handed the 4-1 lead. He survived without surrendering any more runs until the fourth, at which point the Diamondbacks scored twice, thanks to three singles, an errant throw by Irvin on a slow roller to the mound and an ill-advised throw to the plate by right fielder Lane Thomas that allowed a trailing runner to move into scoring position (and eventually score).

"A couple breaks that didn't go our way," the rookie said. "A ground ball through where we had guys shifted. Unfortunately, you just don't have a play made there. There's nothing you can do about that. That's baseball. It's why we play 162 games. A blooper that falls in front of (center fielder Alex Call). Nothing you can do about that. Just a ball put in the right place. Sometimes, man, that's just the game of baseball. I thought I competed well. I tried to keep our team in it. Unfortunately, it didn't happen."

Irvin returned to the mound for the top of the fifth, but his rope only stretched far enough to face one batter, whom he plunked. Martinez made the move after that, signaling for Ramirez from the bullpen and hoping for better results, Irvin appearing to be less than thrilled with the decision to be removed at that point.

"He had 83 pitches when we took him out," Martinez said. "We wanted to keep him right around that now. So, we had to pull him out."

Here’s how that worked out: Ramirez drilled Christian Walker with his very first pitch, he nearly drilled Emmanuel Rivera with his next one, then he aborted a pickoff attempt to first upon realizing Dominic Smith wasn’t holding the trailing runner, resulting in a balk.

Add a couple of sacrifice flies, an RBI single and another single, and Martinez was back to the mound again. Ramirez, who was supposed to be able to provide multiple innings of relief, couldn’t even record three outs before he was unceremoniously yanked, his ERA up to 6.33.

"I don't want to hit anybody. I don't want to walk anybody. That's not me," Ramirez said. "I don't know how to explain it. It's just not me in that moment. Stuff is going the wrong way. But I need to fix it. I will fix it. I will work for it. And I'll be better."

Not that Chad Kuhl fared much better in relief of Ramirez. The veteran right-hander would be charged with four runs of his own (three earned) across 2 1/3 innings that included four hits, three walks and a home run surrendered, leaving his ERA at 7.67.

Sunday’s bullpen meltdown led to a roster change, with Machado designated for assignment and Jordan Weems recalled from Triple-A Rochester to take his place.

What will the response to tonight’s game, in which Nationals pitchers issued eight walks, hit two batters, committed a balk and permitted the Diamondbacks to steal four bases and swipe another via defensive indifference, be?

"We've got to get better at holding runners," Martinez said. "We've got to give Keibert and Riley Adams a chance to throw guys out. But we knew that coming in: If they get on base, they're going to run.

"I'll tell you how you stop them from running: Don't walk guys so much. Keep them off the bases, and they won't run."

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