In a lost season, the Nationals bullpen has been the one bright spot to consistently point to on this roster. It undoubtedly has been this team’s strength.
But all strengths have weak days from time to time.
Today was one of those times as a tied ballgame between the Nats and Reds quickly became a 6-2 loss for the home team after Jake McGee gave up two longballs in relief of Paolo Espino in the sixth inning.
Espino was having an efficient outing for much of the night. Often plagued this season by the inability to put away hitters with two strikes and often with two outs, the Nats starter had put up four zeros through his first five innings. The only blemish being a solo homer by Kyle Farmer on a 1-2 slider with two outs in the first.
Entering the sixth having thrown just 76 pitches, Espino was looking to complete six frames for the first time since Sept. 13, 2021 against the Marlins. But a single and a double (both coming in two-strike counts) put two runners in scoring position and Espino on the ropes with one out.
Davey Martinez decided to trust his strength and go to his bullpen despite Espino showing the ability to put hitters away while throwing 89 pitches. Veteran left-hander Jake McGee was summoned from the Nats ‘pen to face lefty TJ Friedl.
Ahead in a 1-2 count, McGee left a slider in the zone for Friedl to hit right over the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center field for a 4-1 lead. Two batters later, McGee repeated the same mistake of leaving a 1-2 slider in the zone to another lefty in Colin Moran, who belted a solo homer in a similar direction to make it 5-1.
“I was trying to go down and away off the plate or at least over the plate down," McGee said after the game. "When I went back to look at them, they weren't middle in or like really bad. But still, I gotta execute pitches there. And especially (because) I rely on my fastball, I have to make sure the sliders are down out of the zone, especially when I'm ahead in the count like that.”
The Reds’ four runs in the sixth were split evenly between Espino and McGee. The right-handed starter finished 5 ⅓ innings with seven hits, three runs and four strikeouts, a solid effort. McGee saw his ERA with the Nationals inflate from 1.69 to 4.50 in his seventh appearance, only the second in which he’s surrendered runs.
“I think actually every single pitch was working real well," Espino said of his outing. "I think I was executing good every single one of them. I got a good amount of swings and misses. Every single pitch. So just a few mistakes every now and then. But everything else, I think, overall, I think it was a good outing.”
Carl Edwards Jr. gave up an RBI double to Jonathan India in the ninth for the game’s final run.
“For me, it's just continue to make your pitches," Martinez said of the lack of putout pitches by his hurlers. "Even with two strikes, two outs, you got to finish the inning. Now I know (Espino) got frustrated a couple of times making some pitches, but that's part of the game. Like I always say, hey, your job is to get hitters out, their job is to hit the ball, right? So sometimes it's gonna work out, sometimes it's not.”
Meanwhile, offense was still not a strength for the Nationals, as they continued to struggle at the plate. They have now scored three runs or less in eight of their last nine games.
Tonight’s matchup should have been favorable while facing right-hander Luis Cessa as the Reds opener for what was supposed to be a bullpen game for the visiting team. Cessa had a 5.67 ERA entering tonight’s game and hadn’t pitched more than two innings in a single outing this season.
He ended up completing four innings while allowing just one run on four hits. Because of course he did.
And it wasn’t because he was flashing particularly nasty stuff. The Nationals were actually hitting him really hard with exit velos of 105.2, 104.8, 97.9, 111.2, 93.4, 103 and 107.3 mph from the first seven batters. But those only produced two hits.
That last one produced the first run of the night for the Nats via Lane Thomas’ solo homer in the second. Typically a fastball hitter, Thomas was able to turn a 3-2 slider and keep it inside the left-field foul pole to knot the game at 1-1.
“I know he was gonna throw a lot of sliders," Thomas said of his homer off Cessa. "I was kind of respecting the fastball early in that at-bat. And then once I kind of chased that one and kind of fouled it off my bat, I was kind of like still gonna respect the heater, but I was going to be aware of where I thought the next slider should start. So I kind of just saw it good and put a good swing on it.”
His 13th homer of the season surpassed his career total entering this year.
Luke Voit tacked on the second run with an RBI single in the eighth after Joey Meneses doubled ahead of him. Nelson Cruz walked behind Voit to put two runners on for Keibert Ruiz, but the young catcher grounded out on the first pitch to end the Nats’ only real threat with runners in scoring position.
“We hit the ball a lot better than we did the last couple of days," Martinez said. "When we lined out a few times, he hit the ball hard. I know we're constantly trying to stay in the middle of the field. Once again, Joey hit the ball well. Luke hit the ball well. Lane, home run. So I mean that's the kind of at-bats we got to do consistently, just hit the ball hard. You can't control where they go. But hopefully these at-bats will come, some balls will drop, we get a big home run, start scoring some runs.”
Aside from Thomas, Meneses and Voit, the Nationals only had two other runners reach second base (Thomas reached again in the ninth by a walk and defensive indifference). That, of course, doesn’t create many scoring chances. And that, of course, doesn’t win many games.
“I rather see that than the ground balls," Martinez said of the hard contact. "I liked the at-bats today. So let's continue to do that and see if some of those balls drop tomorrow.”