The Nationals are limping to the finish line. And they’re doing so with a pitching staff that is running on fumes and running out of available options.
Tonight’s 9-6 loss to the Braves saw another ragged start by Patrick Corbin, who served up Ronald Acuña Jr.’s historic 40th home run right off the bat. And earlier in the day, one of the few bright spots in the Nats’ rotation saw his season come to an abrupt and unfortunate end.
Jake Irvin, who was roughed up during Thursday’s loss, was placed on the 15-day injured list with right ankle tendinitis. That will end the rookie’s season, and leave Davey Martinez scrambling to figure out who will make what would’ve been his final start next week.
Before that, though, Martinez must figure out who's going to pitch Sunday's newly announced day-night doubleheader, which became necessary when Saturday's scheduled game was postponed a day early with heavy rain and wind forecast to batter the region.
If the storm clears out, the Nats and Braves will play as planned at 1:35 p.m. Sunday, then make up Saturday's rainout at 6:35 p.m. in what now becomes the season's home finale.
"I'm going to go back inside and figure out what's going to transpire," Martinez said when asked who will start the doubleheader games now. "It's supposed to rain pretty good. It stinks, but we could use a day off. We were at the back end of a long stint of playing every day."
Today's transaction, which included the recall of reliever Joe La Sorsa from Triple-A Rochester, means Irvin wraps up his first big league season with 3-7 record and 4.61 ERA across 121 innings, numbers that ballooned after back-to-back rough starts in the last week.
"He fought me a little bit. He wanted to finish the season," Martinez said. "I told him: 'You were really good this year. Let's build off that, and get you ready for next year."
The Nationals, who already shut down MacKenzie Gore for the season and skipped Trevor Williams’ next turn in the rotation, were hoping for some length tonight from Corbin. That, however, was too much to ask against a formidable Atlanta lineup.
A large Friday night crowd had already saluted the retiring Sean Doolittle, who was introduced before the game as he entered via the bullpen cart and then threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Gerardo Parra, when Acuña stepped to the plate, all eyes on the Braves’ leadoff man as he chased history.
Only four others in major league history were in the 40-40 club: Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Alfonso Soriano, who just so happened to do it at RFK Stadium as a member of the 2006 Nationals. It took all of six pitches from Corbin before Acuña etched his name into the record book, driving a 3-2 slider on a line to left field and clearing the fence for his 40th homer.
Acuña, of course, belongs in a club all to himself. In addition to his 40 homers, he also has 68 steals, a total none of the previously mentioned names ever dreamed of reaching in the same season they hit for so much power.
"It's unbelievable," Martinez said. "He's got a few more games. He might end up with 70 stolen bases. That's impressive."
Acuña’s blast was the ninth leadoff homer surrendered by Nationals pitchers this season, third by Corbin. And the left-hander was far from done. He followed that up with an Ozzie Albies single and an Austin Riley homer, leaving his team down 3-0 before ever recording an out.
"Obviously, they have one of the best lineups in the game," Corbin said. "You try to make your pitches. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don't. They've been doing this to a lot of teams this season."
Technically speaking, Corbin improved the next time he faced Acuña, holding the MVP frontrunner to a mere double in the top of the third. Acuña would come around to score two batters later, making it 4-0.
There would be no third face-to-face encounter. Martinez pulled Corbin two batters into the fifth, instead summoning Jordan Weems to pitch to Acuña. (Weems would drill him with an inside, 2-2 fastball, with Acuña again coming around to score later in the inning.)
In spite of their pitching struggles, the Nationals did somehow keep this game close most of the night. They did so while facing a smorgasbord of Atlanta relievers who wound up working overtime after starter Charlie Morton lasted only one inning and departed with discomfort in his right index finger.
Joey Meneses drove in CJ Abrams in third, recording his 87th RBI. Ildemaro Vargas delivered an RBI triple and then scored on Jake Alu’s sacrifice fly in the fourth, trimming the deficit to 4-3. Alu would then triple himself in the sixth and score two batters later on Abrams’ groundout.
And yet, despite scoring four runs, the Nationals somehow went 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position to that point, failing to produce the clutch hits that might have flipped the score. Or at least kept it closer than it wound up when Andrés Machado surrendered a three-run homer to Marcell Ozuna in the top of the seventh that all but ended this one.
The Nationals did give it one more try in the bottom of the eighth, finally getting that long-awaited hit with runners in scoring position when Abrams doubled in a pair to cut the deficit to 9-6. But that’s as close as they would get, left to drop their second straight to the division champs.
"The kids battled back," Martinez said. "We put up a fight. It's just that this team is really good."