Bullpen woes again plague Nats in home-opener loss (updated)

In adding several veteran relievers with late-inning experience this winter and even into the spring, the Nationals hoped they were assembling a bullpen that would give Davey Martinez more viable options for tight ballgames and not force the manager to rely too much on his top arms.

So when the situation arose today in the team’s home opener – tie game in the eighth, Kyle Finnegan and Hunter Harvey having both pitched the previous two days – Martinez entrusted it to Matt Barnes, a 33-year-old former All-Star closer with the Red Sox trying to bounce back from an injury-plagued 2023 with the Marlins.

The ensuing results suggested there’s still some work to be done figuring out who else can be trusted to be part of the so-called "A" bullpen.

Allowing four of the first five batters he faced to reach base, Barnes turned a tie game into a three-run deficit and eventually an 8-4 loss to the Pirates, who are off to a surprising 5-0 start to their season and have left the Nats at 1-3 for the sixth consecutive year.

"It's a long season, and obviously a handful of things haven't started out the way we want to," Barnes said. "But we've got 158 games to go. Hiccups like this are going to happen. You clean them up and work on getting better."

A sellout crowd of 40,405 had little to cheer for most of the afternoon, then came to life when the home team rallied to tie the game in the bottom of the seventh. Stymied by Pirates starter Marco Gonzales, a Nationals lineup that lost left fielder Jesse Winker after one inning due to a stomach illness that also left reliever Jordan Weems unavailable, thanks to a big blast by the last position player on the roster to appear in a game this season.

Riley Adams watched the entire opening series in Cincinnati from the bench. He got the nod behind the plate today, though, with Keibert Ruiz taking a semi-day off as DH. And the backup catcher delivered with a 429-foot blast to left-center that tied the game and suggested his hamate injury from last September hasn’t sapped his power stroke.

"It definitely felt nice, especially in that moment," Adams said. "I was able to get us back in the ballgame and try to get us a little momentum going into the last part."

The good vibes were immediately wiped out, though, when Martinez opted not to use Finnegan or Harvey a third straight day out of the bullpen this early in the season.

"Three in a row, they haven't done that all spring. So I've got to be very, very careful," the manager said pregame. "I know they're all going to say: 'I can pitch,' because they know they have a day off tomorrow. But we'll see how that plays out. Hopefully, we don't need them. We score 15 runs and be done with it."

That didn’t happen, so Martinez was forced to give the ball to others late. It began with left-hander Robert Garcia, who allowed only one of the three batters he faced across the seventh and eighth innings to reach, and that was via Michael A. Taylor’s perfectly placed bunt single.

Garcia would technically be charged with the loss, but it would fall squarely on Barnes’ shoulders. The veteran right-hander, a mid-spring acquisition who made the club off a minor league contract, immediately surrendered an RBI double to Connor Joe. After a flyout to the warning track by Bryan Reynolds, Ke’Bryan Hayes grounded a hit up the middle that turned into a hustle RBI double. Another RBI single by Andrew McCutchen capped the rally and extended the deficit to 6-3.

"I've been fortunate throughout my career to be in that position a number of different times," Barnes said. "I just didn't execute pitches today."

And when Tanner Rainey gave up two more runs in the top of the ninth, while totaling 40 pitches, the Pirates were well on their way to their first 5-0 start since 1983.

"He threw the ball better today," Martinez said of Rainey, who only returned from Tommy John surgery at the end of the 2023 season. "His (fastball) was up to 95, which is really nice. I think it's just a matter of time with him. He hasn't pitched in a long time. But we've got to use him. He's part of that bullpen."

The threat of rain loomed for days, but as first pitch arrived, the skies were dry and even showing a wee bit of blue behind the clouds. The late-arriving crowd was able to cheer for favorite Nationals current (CJ Abrams, Trey Lipscomb) and past (new coaches Sean Doolittle and Gerardo Parra, new Pirates center fielder Taylor) and then roar for D.C. Washington’s always-rousing version of the national anthem.

In the bullpen, trying to block out everything around him, was MacKenzie Gore, given the assignment of the home opener start as something of a show of faith from Martinez in his young left-hander. Gore would pitch as though he was a bit jittery early on, but he steadily improved as the start progressed and ultimately did what his team needed from him.

Pumping out fastballs that regularly reached 98 mph and sliders in the 92-93 mph range, Gore wasn’t suffering from a lack of adrenaline. He did suffer from a lack of early command. He needed to throw 47 pitches just to get through the first two innings, a stretch that included four hits, a walk, a hit-by-pitch and a lot of deep counts.

"Adrenaline's a good thing, if you use it the right way," he said. "I'm not going to necessarily say I did that the best way. But I was excited."

In spite of all that, Gore kept the damage to a minimum. And as he began to find the plate with more consistency, he began to get quicker outs and gave himself a chance to pitch deeper in the game. By the time he closed out the top of the fifth, his pitch count was a manageable 92, prompting Martinez to let him re-take the mound for the sixth.

Gore would end his afternoon with a double surrendered to Henry Davis, then a beautiful curveball to strike out Oneil Cruz on his 101st pitch. He departed to an ovation from the crowd, and though he would be charged with another run after a pair of infield singles off Derek Law, he acquitted himself well in his first career home opener.

"I didn't execute well early, but we made it where it wasn't as bad as it could've been," he said. "We settled in and did end up getting to the sixth."

Some more run support from his teammates would’ve gone a long way toward making Gore’s performance look better. But a reconfigured lineup – Adams, Victor Robles and Ildemaro Vargas all started – couldn’t break through against Gonzales, who allowed only one run over five-plus innings.

The lone run came in the third via Robles’ one-out walk and steal of second base, then Thomas’ two-out RBI single to right. Aside from that, the at-bats against Gonzales were quick and the outs plentiful. The Pirates starter completed the fifth on a mere 63 pitches. And even though Thomas managed to work him for a 13-pitch walk in the sixth, putting two on with nobody out, reliever Roansy Contreras managed to strike out Joey Meneses and Eddie Rosario sandwiched around a first-pitch grounder off Keibert Ruiz’s bat.

"We've got to jump on their starters," Martinez said. "We talk about it every day. We've got to try to knock those starters out. We've got to get deeper in counts."

As we’ve already seen through the first week of this young season, it’s not wise to judge the Nationals’ offensive production prior to the seventh inning. Unfortunately, it’s also not wise to judge their bullpen until the game actually ends.

"We're not playing horrible," Martinez said. "A couple little things here and there. We'll get those guys back on Wednesday, and we'll try to go 1-0 on Wednesday."

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