Alcantara dominates Nats one last time in 2022 (updated)

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MIAMI – If they had the ability to vote for this year’s National League Cy Young Award winner – and they most certainly do not – the Nationals would unanimously select Sandy Alcantara. With all due respect to anybody else they’ve faced this year, how could they go with anyone other than the Marlins ace, who has dominated everyone around the league but has saved some of this best performances for them.

And you can add tonight’s gem to the list. With power and efficiency, Alcantara toppled the Nationals, 4-1, and nearly tossed his second complete game against them this week.

The lanky right-hander struck out 11 and saw his pitch count climb a bit (99) compared to his 103-pitch complete game Sunday at Nationals Park. That prompted manager Don Mattingly to lift him after he struck out the side in the eighth and turn to closer Dylan Floro to finish it off.

That didn’t diminish Alcantara’s performance tonight, in which he allowed only five batters to reach base, with Alex Call reaching three times on his own and everybody else combining to reach twice. Call somehow managed to reach base in six of his seven plate appearances against Alcantara this week, cracking a code nobody else in the Nats lineup could figure out.

There’s no shame, of course, in getting beat by Alcantara, now 14-8 with a 2.32 ERA for the season. But he’s been remarkably dominant against the Nationals, who in five starts went 4-0 with an 0.90 ERA, averaging eight innings per outing.

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Corbin to miss next start, final outing still uncertain

Patrick Corbin throwing gray back

MIAMI – Patrick Corbin won’t make his next scheduled start while he waits for his back to heal, and the Nationals haven’t decided yet if he’ll return to make one final start before the season ends.

Corbin, who had to depart Tuesday night’s start in Atlanta in the first inning after tweaking his back, has been able to play catch on flat ground since then. But he has not yet thrown off a mound, and until he’s able to do that the club won’t have him start a game.

“At this point, because he’s not going to be able to throw a bullpen, we might skip him,” manager Davey Martinez said. “We’re undecided who’s going to pitch in his spot, but when we get back home we’ll have (Cory) Abbott, (Paolo) Espino and TBD.”

The Nationals have five other healthy starters, so they can proceed without Corbin if they need. Josiah Gray could pitch on normal rest Wednesday against the Braves, though Martinez admitted after Friday night’s start the right-hander could still be shut down due to his career-high workload this season.

The real issue comes Saturday, when the Nats are scheduled to face the Phillies in a day-night doubleheader. MacKenzie Gore, who is slated to make his fourth rehab start for Triple-A Rochester on Monday, could come off the injured list to start one of those games. If not, the team would need to find someone else (or go with Corbin).

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Game 151 lineups: Nats at Marlins

Erick Fedde throws gray

MIAMI – It was only six days ago the Nationals faced Sandy Alcantara. The Marlins ace went the distance that afternoon at Nationals Park, tossing a complete game on only 103 pitches. The good news: The Nats managed seven hits off the right-hander. The bad news: They scored only one run. And because they were so aggressive, often putting the first or second pitch of an at-bat in play, they allowed him to keep his pitch count so low, he was able to cruise through nine innings.

So, what’s the strategy tonight at loanDepot Park? Continue to be aggressive and hope more of those hits produce runs? Or try to make Alcantara work and perhaps get him out of the game sooner and force the Marlins to go to their bullpen? There’s no right answer, of course. The Nats just have to hope they can find a way to beat the Cy Young Award favorite and avoid their 99th loss of the season.

Erick Fedde makes his 25th start of the year for the Nationals, his fourth against the Marlins. Historically, the right-hander has been successful against them, but he labored last weekend in D.C., allowing three runs on seven hits while throwing 87 pitches in only four innings before getting hooked. Fedde has got to find a way to be more efficient tonight to give his team a chance against Alcantara and Co.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS at MIAMI MARLINS
Where:
loanDepot Park
Gametime: 6:10 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN2, MLB.tv
Radio: 106.7 FM, MLB.com
Weather: Indoors

NATIONALS
RF Lane Thomas
2B Luis García
1B Joey Meneses
DH Luke Voit
LF Alex Call
SS CJ Abrams
3B Ildemaro Vargas
CF Victor Robles
C Riley Adams 

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Rotation puzzle for final 12 games looks complicated

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MIAMI – There are 12 games remaining on the Nationals’ schedule, 12 games that need to be played in 12 days (with one off-day still on tap but a day-night doubleheader also on the slate). Which means Davey Martinez and Jim Hickey have 12 more starting pitchers to name, which is becoming a more daunting challenge than either man anticipated.

In a perfect world, the Nationals would’ve had more starters than dates that needed to be filled. They would have Cade Cavalli and MacKenzie Gore ready to finish strong and perhaps allow Josiah Gray to shut down early. They would have the ability to prevent Patrick Corbin from making a run at 20 losses. They would have kids they could summon from their farm system to take over at the end for veterans who just don’t need the work at this point.

But this is not a perfect world, and so Martinez and Hickey may be forced to do some things with their rotation they’d rather not.

Consider Gray, for example. The Nationals have been talking for months about their preference not to let the 24-year-old’s workload get too heavy in his first full professional season. The intention was always going to be to shut him down at some point in late September.

But following Friday night’s 5-2 loss to the Marlins – in which Gray looked really sharp for five innings before faltering in the sixth – Martinez admitted this decision has gotten tougher in the wake of Corbin’s recent back injury. (The left-hander, who was removed from his last start after only 12 pitches, played catch Friday and reported improvement, but there’s still no guarantee he returns to pitch before season’s end.)

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Strong start turns sour for Gray, Nats lose 98th game (updated)

Josiah Gray throwing gray

MIAMI – As he’s done throughout his first full big league season, Josiah Gray did some things tonight that could only leave the Nationals encouraged about his prospects for long-term success.

Gray didn’t surrender a home run for the first time since June 18. And he didn’t walk a batter through his first five innings of work against the Marlins, keeping his pitch count much lower than he has throughout most of the summer.

But just as he’s done throughout his first full big league season, Gray also did just enough to turn what could’ve been a strong start into something much less satisfying. With a ragged, three-run bottom of the sixth, the Nats right-hander lost his shot at a quality start and left his team in a position to eventually lose 5-2.

Gray’s 10th loss of the season sent the Nationals to their 98th loss of the season. With presumptive Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara set to start for Miami on Saturday, they very well may take the field Sunday afternoon trying to avoid reaching the 100-loss mark for the first time in 13 years.

A lack of offense beyond Lane Thomas’ leadoff homer in the first and Joey Meneses’ RBI double in the eighth didn’t help matters. But in the end, Gray proved to be the story of the night, for both encouraging and discouraging reasons.

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Gore to make another rehab start, Corbin resumes throwing

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MIAMI – MacKenzie Gore will make another rehab start for Triple-A Rochester, leaving the left-hander with enough time to make only major league start for the Nationals before season’s end.

Gore, who threw 67 pitches over four innings of one-run ball Wednesday in his third rehab start, will return to Rochester and attempt to build up to five innings Monday against Worcester.

“We talked to him before he left about trying to throw strike one every (at-bat) and work from there. And as the game went along, they said he started doing a lot more of that,” manager Davey Martinez said. “That’s encouraging. For me, it’s just about honing in on his mechanics, throwing more strikes. And once he does that, I think the five innings and 75 pitches will come.”

Already on the 15-day injured list with left elbow inflammation when the Nationals acquired him as part of the haul of prospects the Padres sent them for Juan Soto and Josh Bell, Gore has slowly built his arm back up over the last six weeks.

The plan all along has included the possibility of one or two major league starts before season’s end. At this point, there wouldn’t be enough time for him to make more than one.

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Game 150 lineups: Nats at Marlins

Josiah Gray throw gray back

MIAMI – Fresh off what I’m sure was a relaxing day off here in Miami, the Nationals open a three-game weekend series with the Marlins, their last chance to face a team that isn’t in the pennant race before the season ends.

The Nats took two of three from Miami last weekend in D.C. in one of their better performances during an improved September stretch. Their only loss came to Sandy Alcantara, and unfortunately they’ll have to face the presumptive National League Cy Young Award winner again Saturday. So that perhaps puts some added pressure to win tonight’s opener.

That means Josiah Gray needs to put together a solid outing, something he hasn’t done in a while. In three September starts so far, the right-hander has a 9.45 ERA, with 10 walks and five home runs allowed over only 13 1/3 innings. He hasn’t earned a win in any of his last 15 starts.

You would hope the spacious outfield here at loanDepot Park would help Gray keep the ball in the yard. So the key to success, then, may well be his ability to limit the walks that have so often plagued him this year.

The Nationals go up against Braxton Garrett, the rookie left-hander who enters with a 3.68 ERA in 14 big league starts. He faced them once before, on July 4 in D.C., where he allowed only one run on four hits over 7 1/3 impressive innings.

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Slow-working Finnegan isn't worried about pitch clock

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Kyle Finnegan smiles when the subject comes up. He knows he’s one of the slowest-working pitchers in the majors. And he knows people assume that will become a major problem once he’s subject to a pitch clock next season.

Here’s what the Nationals closer wants you to know about that: He spent two seasons in the minor leagues with a pitch clock enforced and had no trouble adhering to it. But until he’s required to speed his process up, he’s not going to voluntarily do it.

“I think it’s just a product of taking what’s given to you,” he said earlier this week. “There’s no clock here, so why not make sure you’re ready to go?”

Nobody’s going to claim Finnegan isn’t giving himself enough time to make sure he’s ready. According to Baseball Savant, he averages 25.6 seconds between pitches when there’s nobody on base, fourth-slowest in the majors. With runners on base, that number goes up to 28.5 seconds, sixth-slowest in the sport.

(Important qualifier here: That “tempo” stat Baseball Savant uses tracks how long it takes from the time a pitcher releases the ball for one pitch until the time he releases it for the next pitch. The pitch clock that Major League Baseball will institute next year - 15 seconds with nobody on base, 20 seconds with runners on base - starts when the pitcher receives the throw-back from his catcher and ends when he begins his delivery. Accounting for that, Finnegan’s pace this season drops to 19.6 seconds with nobody on base, 22.5 seconds with runners on base.)

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Nats will have real impact on fate of NL East race

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The Nationals are nowhere near the pennant race this season. They enter the week an astounding 41 games back in the National League East, the largest deficit in club history.

But make no mistake, the Nats will play a significant role in determining who wins the division and who qualifies for the postseason as a wild card, because they’re about to play the majority of their remaining games against those teams.

There are 16 games left on the schedule, 13 of which come against the Braves, Phillies and Mets. It begins tonight with a three-game series at Atlanta. Then, following a three-game respite in Miami, the Nationals host the Braves for three and the Phillies for four in the final homestand of 2022 before finishing the year with a three-game series at New York.

What’s at stake? For the Mets and Braves, a division title. For the Phillies, a chance to end an 11-year playoff drought.

In the only truly close division race in the majors right now, the Mets hold a one-game advantage on the Braves (though they’re tied in the loss column, with Atlanta having two more games than New York still to play). Both have dominated the Nationals this season – the Braves are 10-3, the Mets are 11-5 – but the Nats haven’t faced Atlanta since the All-Star break.

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Nats dominated again by Alcantara, can't sweep Marlins (updated)

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The Nationals have seen Sandy Alcantara enough to know there isn’t a particularly good way to try to beat him. The Marlins ace has a 100-mph sinker, a 90-mph slider, a 94-mph changeup, command of everything and a rubber arm that allows him to keep on pitching all day and all night.

So when formulating a gameplan for today’s series finale, manager Davey Martinez decided there wasn’t much sense trying to wait out Alcantara and drive his pitch count up. Better to attack him early and hope for the best.

"The big thing about Sandy is, we know he's going to be around the strike zone," Martinez said this morning. "You can't sit there and wait, because you know he's going to pound strikes. So, be aggressive early, and get a ball that you can hit. You don't have to swing overly hard. Just try to make good, solid contact."

That’s all well and good, but if that approach doesn’t produce runs, all it does is keep Alcantara’s pitch count low enough to allow him to go the distance.

Which is previously what happened this afternoon during the Nationals’ 3-1 loss to Miami. Despite getting another quality start out of Aníbal Sánchez and keeping the game within reach, they could not push across more than one run off Alcantara, who was so efficient he took the mound for the bottom of the ninth with a modest pitch count of 90.

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Surging Thomas gets a day off vs. Marlins ace

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Lane Thomas has become one of the Nationals’ hottest hitters down the stretch of this season, owner of a .357 batting average, .419 on-base percentage and .991 OPS over his last 13 games. And his leadoff homer Saturday helped set the tone for his team’s 5-3 win over the Marlins.

So why isn’t Thomas in the Nats’ lineup for today’s series finale? Consider the numbers against Miami’s starter this afternoon: Thomas is 0-for-11 with six strikeouts in his career against Sandy Alcantara.

Not that anybody has particularly good numbers against Alcantara, who could be on his way to the first Cy Young Award of his career. But in this case, the numbers are so striking, manager Davey Martinez didn’t want to risk Thomas falling into a slump via one bad game at the plate against an ace.

“He’s been swinging the bat well. And I want him to continue to swing the bat well,” Martinez said with a laugh. “I saw the numbers as well, and I thought he’s been playing every day. He’s been playing a lot. I know we’ve had some days off, but I thought give him a day, a little breather, and keep him going.”

Indeed, Thomas has started 30 consecutive games, so he certainly has earned a day off at this point. But he’s also been quite productive during this stretch. Over his last 28 games, he’s batting .310 with seven doubles, a triple, six homers, 14 RBIs and a .913 OPS.

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Game 146 lineups: Nats vs. Marlins

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The Nationals haven’t found themselves in this position very much this season, but here they are today: After back-to-back wins over the Marlins the last two nights, they have a chance to sweep a series for the first time in 2022.

To do that, though, they’ll have to either outpitch Sandy Alcantara or score some runs off him. Neither is an easy task. Alcantara remains the favorite to win his first career Cy Young Award this fall, entering today’s start with a 2.43 ERA across an MLB-high 203 2/3 innings. He is the very definition of a modern ace, and the Nationals have had all kinds of trouble against him.

This is Alcantara’s fourth start against the Nats this season. He’s 2-0 with an 0.78 ERA, having allowed only two runs and 19 batters to reach base across 23 innings. He pitched a six-hit, zero-walk shutout the last time he faced them, June 8 here in D.C.

So, if the Nationals aren’t going to outslug the Marlins today, they’re going to have to outpitch them. Aníbal Sánchez, the long-ago Marlins right-hander, faces that task this afternoon. He has pitched quite well recently, with only three runs allowed over his last five starts, spanning 23 1/3 innings. His last outing lasted only two innings, though, because of that long rain delay in Philadelphia one week ago. So he’s plenty rested for this one.

MIAMI MARLINS at WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Where:
Nationals Park
Gametime: 1:35 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN2, MLB.tv
Radio: 106.7 FM, MLB.com
Weather: Partly cloudy, 82 degrees, wind 8 mph out to center field

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Nats topple Marlins again with rare power display (updated)

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The Nationals’ offensive issues this season really can be boiled down to a simple disparity in their production at the plate: Plenty of contact, not nearly enough power.

Entering the day, the Nats actually led the National League with 853 singles, which would be meaningful if not for the major-league-leading 130 double plays they had grounded into. And it’s not like they’ve made up for that with extra-base hits; they ranked 13th in the NL (25th in the majors) with 367 of them.

So consider what they did today during a 5-3 victory over the Marlins within the context of the season as a whole. The Nationals launched four home runs (all solo), then added a pair of doubles. They wound up, remarkably, with zero singles in this game, yet proved it’s still possible to win without them for only the fifth time in club history.

"Don't get me wrong; I like homers," manager Davey Martinez said. "But I also like homers the right way. These guys swung the bats well today. We hit some balls hard. We hit some balls that went out of the ballpark, which is really nice."

It certainly helped matters that four relievers combined to toss five scoreless innings after Erick Fedde labored through four long innings. Without the work of Hunter Harvey, Erasmo Ramirez, Carl Edwards Jr. and Kyle Finnegan, the Nats don’t pull off back-to-back wins over the Marlins after opening the season 1-12 against their division counterparts.

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Gore's elbow healthy, but lefty still battling command on rehab

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As he makes his way back from the injured list, MacKenzie Gore’s biggest challenge doesn’t appear to be the health of his left arm but the sharpness of his pitches.

Gore made his second rehab start for Triple-A Rochester on Friday night, and though he emerged healthy, he did have some trouble keeping the ball over the plate: Only 32 of the lefty’s 57 pitches were strikes.

“When you’re out for a while, part of the rehab is getting yourself back in rhythm,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said. “The first inning was very clean, they said. The second inning was clean; he walked a batter. And then the third inning is when it really became an issue.”

Indeed, Gore threw 25-of-40 pitches for strikes during his first two innings of work, then threw only 7-of-17 for strikes in the third before getting pulled.

“That could be just a little bit fatigued, not staying on his legs,” Martinez said. “That could easily be corrected by going out there and continuing to build up. But we’ll get him back here. He talked with (pitching coach Jim) Hickey about some of the things he wants to continue to work on in the bullpen, so he’ll come back and work on those things, and we’ll get him back out there.”

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Game 145 lineups: Nats vs. Marlins

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The Nationals did the unthinkable and actually beat the Marlins on Friday night. Now they’ll see if they can somehow do it two days in a row and really reverse their season-long struggles against their sub-.500 division foes.

As was the case Friday, the Nats are facing a Miami left-hander. They’ll need to be better against Trevor Rogers than they were against Jesús Luzardo, who didn’t give up a run until Joey Meneses’ inside-the-park homer in the bottom of the seventh. Rogers has not had a good season (4-11, 5.35 ERA) but he’s been quite good against the Nationals (3-0, 2.25 ERA).

On the bright side, Erick Fedde has always been good against the Marlins (4-1, 1.86 ERA in nine career starts) and he held them to two runs on three hits over six innings in his last outing against them on July 3.

MIAMI MARLINS at WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Where:
Nationals Park
Gametime: 4:05 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN2, MLB.tv
Radio: 106.7 FM, MLB.com
Weather: Partly cloudy, 82 degrees, wind 8 mph out to left field

NATIONALS
RF Lane Thomas
LF Alex Call
1B Joey Meneses
DH Luke Voit
3B Ildemaro Vargas
2B Luis García
C Riley Adams
CF Victor Robles
SS CJ Abrams

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Gore makes rehab start, Hassell heading to Fall League

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As Cade Cavalli deals with another shutdown and Josiah Gray deals with September struggles, the Nationals at least are seeing some positive signs with the third member of the young pitching trio they hope to build their rotation around.

MacKenzie Gore made his second rehab start for Triple-A Rochester on Friday and tossed 2 2/3 scoreless innings on 57 pitches, another step on his path toward making his Nats debut before season’s end.

Gore, on the 15-day injured list with elbow inflammation since late July (before he was part of the Nationals’ blockbuster trade with the Padres for Juan Soto and Josh Bell), built up both his innings and pitch count in his second rehab start for Rochester.

The left-hander did put six Lehigh Valley batters on base in his 2 2/3 innings (four singles, two walks) but didn’t allow any of them to score while striking out two. He threw 32 of his 57 pitches for strikes.

Assuming Gore came out of this outing healthy, the Nats are likely to have him make another rehab start in five or six days, building up to roughly 70 pitches. Depending on how that goes, the club could decide to activate him off the IL with enough time to make two big league starts before the season ends Oct. 5.

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Nats storm back to get Gray off hook, finally beat Marlins (updated)

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First came Joey Meneses’ inside-the-park homer, a huffing-and-puffing adventure around the bases to add the latest improbable chapter to the 30-year-old rookie’s out-of-nowhere arrival.

Then came CJ Abrams’ two-out, two-run triple, an explosive sprint from the plate to third base by the dynamic 21-year-old shortstop.

And when Ildemaro Vargas drove the go-ahead double to left-center in the bottom of the eighth, the Nationals had finally pulled off something they’d done only once in 13 previous tries this season: They beat the Marlins.

Storming back to score five runs in their final two offensive innings, the Nats emerged with a 5-4 victory over Miami, only their second win over their division counterparts this season, certainly the most uplifting to date.

"I look back, and I think about when we play good defense, good things happen," said manager Davey Martinez, whose team indeed sparkled in the field again tonight. "We're playing good defense, we're staying in some of these games. And the hits are going to come, the runs are going to come. Continue to get the defense, get good pitching, and we'll win some games."

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Cavalli shut down again, gets cortisone shot in shoulder

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Cade Cavalli has been shut down again after experiencing a recurrence of shoulder discomfort in his first throwing session since landing on the injured list three weeks ago, though both the Nationals and the rookie right-hander say they’re confident he’s not dealing with anything more serious than inflammation.

Cavalli had just completed a two-week shutdown period following his shaky Aug. 26 major league debut and was cleared to resume throwing Wednesday. But his session, in which he was going to be restricted to 60 feet on flat ground, had to be cut short when he reported more shoulder soreness.

The Nationals gave Cavalli a cortisone shot and instructed him to shut down for another three to seven days before he attempts to throw again.

“It was a little painful, but we got it all worked out,” the 24-year-old said. “And here in a couple days, I should be back out there throwing again after letting it calm down. I’m very encouraged. I think it’s going to be very good.”

Though the team insists Cavalli continues to deal with only shoulder inflammation and nothing more serious, the fact he was unable to make it through his first throwing session in two weeks has to concern club officials.

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Game 144 lineups: Nats vs. Marlins

josiah gray pitches red

The Nationals have been dreadful within the NL East this season, going an inconceivable 11-46 against division opponents to date. But would you have guessed their biggest struggles have come not against the division’s three playoff contenders but the only other sub-.500 team? Somehow, the Nats have gone 1-12 against the Marlins, a shocking head-to-head record when you think about it.

Which brings us to the season’s remaining schedule: 19 games, all against NL East foes, including six against Miami. That’s still a significant 25 percent of their overall intradivision games to go, which could either makes a miserable season even worse or perhaps offer a tiny sliver of good vibes heading into the winter.

Josiah Gray gets the start for tonight’s series opener, his first appearance in eight days. These are important outings for the young right-hander, who has run up a higher innings count than he ever has in his professional career and is in danger of being shut down if he doesn’t show some encouraging signs here soon. Tonight would be a good time to begin that process.

The Nationals go up against Jesús Luzardo, their former prospect who was dealt to the Athletics way back in 2017 for Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson and has experienced some ups and downs since then. The 24-year-old lefty is 12-18 with a 4.87 ERA overall in 57 career big league games, 3-7 with a 3.81 ERA in 14 starts this season. Luzardo is facing the Nats for the first time this year, but he went up against them three times in 2021 and gave up 14 runs in 13 innings.

MIAMI MARLINS at WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Where:
Nationals Park
Gametime: 7:05 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN, MLB.tv
Radio: 106.7 FM, MLB.com
Weather: Clear, 76 degrees, wind 4 mph out to left field

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Over-amped Harvey pays the price facing old teammates

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Hunter Harvey had taken the mound 55 times in a big league game, and aside from perhaps the first time three years ago, he did so feeling like he was completely in control of the situation. Until the Nationals right-hander found himself jogging in from the bullpen during the fourth inning Tuesday night, tasked with pitching out of a jam created by starter Cory Abbott, against the Orioles team that drafted him in 2013 and gave him his first big league appearance in 2019.

“That was like debut adrenaline,” he said afterward. “It don’t come around very often.”

And he didn’t mean it in a positive way.

By the time he departed one inning later, Harvey had suffered through perhaps the worst of his 30 appearances with the Nats this season, giving up both the tying and go-ahead runs in what would end up a 4-3 loss. Making matters worse, the tying run came via the first home run he’s surrendered this year, and it just so happened to come off the bat of one of his best friends: Ryan Mountcastle.

After escaping the fourth-inning jam with one inherited runner scoring but his team’s lead intact, Harvey prepared to return for the fifth. He knew Mountcastle would be leading off, and both guys knew they were about to square off for the first time in an actual game after years of imagining just such a scenario.

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