Behind early rally and Irvin's latest gem, Nats finish trip strong (updated)

CLEVELAND – The schedule has not been kind to the Nationals through the season’s first two months, from far more games on the road (35) than at home (23) to a current stretch of 17 consecutive games without a scheduled day off to a number of series against some of the top contenders in both leagues.

How have the Nats handled it all? Maybe they haven’t thrived, but they’ve more than held their own under the circumstances.

With a 5-2 victory over the Guardians today, the Nationals secured a winning road trip at 4-3. They started the week taking three of four in Atlanta. They preceded that with a series win over the American Leauge West-leading Mariners, leaving them 6-4 so far during this particularly grueling stretch heading into a seven-game homestand against the Mets and Braves.

They may have lost this weekend series to Cleveland, currently in first place in the AL Central. But they admittedly gave away Saturday’s game with several defensive and baserunning gaffes. And then they bounced back and won today’s finale despite a depleted lineup missing both CJ Abrams and Jacob Young, thanks to one big early outburst and another strong pitching performance led by Jake Irvin.

"I think to win the majority of games on a road trip, against two teams that have played really well so far this year, I think it's a win in everyone's mind," outfielder Lane Thomas said. "I think we left some stuff on the table the first two games here, but they played well. I think we definitely could've made the first game closer and maybe been in contention yesterday. But it's a tough league, and we play a lot of games for a reason. Going forward, I think we have a chance to beat a lot more good teams."

With Abrams scratched from the lineup for the second straight day with a jammed left shoulder and Young sitting after taking a pitch off his right hand Saturday, the Nationals lineup was thrown out of whack again, especially at the top and bottom. No matter, because the replacement No. 1 and No. 9 hitters more than did their part to contribute this afternoon.

This was especially true during a four-run rally in the top of the second, though the first two runs were driven in by another key figure who is finally starting to deliver on a more regular basis. Joey Meneses initially was dropped to eighth in today’s lineup but was moved up to seventh after Abrams was scratched. He proceeded to drive a Carlos Carrasco fastball to deep left-center, a 102.8-mph double that scored a pair of runs to get the Nats on the board.

"My focus was up the middle, to stay on a sinker or a slider," Meneses said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "And I was able to connect on that pitch very well, so I felt great."

Two batters later, it was Ildemaro Vargas (Abrams’ replacement at shortstop) who came through with a two-out RBI single to left. And because he took second on the throw to the plate, Vargas was in position to score on Thomas’ subsequent RBI single to right, completing the four-run rally.

Vargas and Thomas weren’t done. Two innings later, Vargas came through with a hit-and-run single that put runners on the corners for Thomas, who drove a ball to the warning track in center for a sacrifice fly and the team’s fifth run off Carrasco.

"It's huge. It takes a little pressure off Irvin and the rest of the guys," Thomas said.

"It's awesome," said Irvin, who had received only nine total runs of support over his last five starts, all losses despite his performance. "It makes my job a lot easier. I just go up there and continue to pound the zone and keep us in that game. Props to those games, man. They take a little bit of the weight off my shoulders, and it was really awesome to see."

Irvin opened his afternoon with 14 consecutive strikes. He suffered a quick hiccup in the bottom of the second when he allowed three hits, capped by Daniel Schneemann’s two-run double in his first career plate appearance. But he buckled down after that and put together yet another quality start.

Irvin retired 12 of the last 15 batters he faced, continuing to pound the strike zone and continuing to make pitches in the few tight situations he got himself into. The biggest pitch of them all: a 1-1 sinker to Tyler Freeman with two on and one out in the fifth. It resulted in a grounder to short and a 6-4-3 double play that left the right-hander pumping his fist as he hopped off the mound.

"Great visit by (pitching coach Jim Hickey)," Irvin said. "He pointed out this was a good opportunity for a ground ball in the first couple pitches. I just wanted to execute a pitch, and those guys turned it behind me. It's always awesome, so I was fired up."

By the time he departed, Irvin had gone six innings on 98 pitches, allowing two runs on five hits and a walk, striking out six and lowering his ERA to an impressive 3.39 and his WHIP to an even more impressive 1.029.

"We harp on it every day with these guys: You've got to attack the strike zone," manager Davey Martinez said. "And he does it really well."

With his "A" bullpen fresh, Martinez had everything set up nicely for the late innings. Robert Garcia promptly retired the side in the seventh. Hunter Harvey retired the side in the eighth. And Kyle Finnegan allowed a harmless two-out single in the ninth, securing his 16th save in 18 tries and securing a winning road trip for a Nationals club that while still four games under .500 is showing it can hold its own against the big boys.

"I always say the three constants are we've got to pitch, we've got to play good defense and we've got to run the bases well," Martinez said. "The hitting will be there some days. Some days we've got to scratch and claw. But if we continue to do that, we can play. We can play with anybody. It's fun to watch these guys go out and compete. As a group, they're doing really well. We start hitting a little more, we'll start winning a lot more games."

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