Depleted bullpen wilts as Nats' winning streak ends (updated)

DETROIT – If they wanted to pull off their first six-game winning streak since the final week of the 2019 regular season, the Nationals were going to need not only quality work from Patrick Corbin in an unexpected start. They were going to need not only run production from their lineup. They were also going to need a set of relievers not accustomed to closing out close games to finish the job on a day when the usual suspects weren’t available.

So even though they got quality work for Corbin, and even though they got just enough offense to leave the game tied in the seventh inning, the Nationals did not get the critical last part of today’s required winning formula and emerged with a 7-2 loss to the Tigers.

Seeking a series sweep and the team’s first six-game winning streak in nearly five years, the Nats watched as relievers Derek Law and Robert Garcia combined to allow six runs in 1 1/3 innings, turning a tight game into a lopsided one.

In winning five straight games for the first time since June 2021, the Nationals leaned heavily on their top three late-inning relievers: Kyle Finnegan, Hunter Harvey and Dylan Floro. The domino effect of all that: None figured to be available for today’s series finale, leaving the fate of the game in the hands of others.

"Look, we rely on these guys throughout the whole year, and they've done really well," manager Davey Martinez said. "It just didn't happen today. ... It's just one game. We won the series. We get to home now and start a fresh one."

Martinez hoped he could cobble things together after Corbin pitched into the sixth, but Law (who threw 27 pitches Tuesday) allowed four batters to reach and ultimately all score. And Garcia (who threw 22 pitches Wednesday) couldn’t pick up his teammate, giving up three straight singles upon entering the game and allowing two inherited runners to score.

By the time the damage was done, the Nationals trailed by five runs and Martinez was left to give the remaining outs to Jacob Barnes (who hadn’t pitched in four days) and Tanner Rainey (who hadn’t pitched in eight days).

"I think throughout the year, games like that are going to happen," Law said. "You never know when it's going to be, and you hope it's not a game like that. Unfortunately, it was."

This game also saw the first career ejection of Lane Thomas, who barely appeared to react to a borderline strike three call in the top of the sixth but was nevertheless tossed by plate umpire Emil Jimenez, drawing a rare show of emotion from the easygoing right fielder.

"Looking back, what I said was nothing that I haven't said in the past," Thomas said. "I just thought (the ejection) was a little quick. So I don't know if he didn't understand me, or what happened. But I definitely didn't say anything towards him. That was the frustrating part for me, that it was that quick and not directed at him."

Corbin wasn’t even supposed to pitch in this series, the Nationals opting to skip over his turn in the rotation and give him a physical and mental breather before retaking the mound this weekend against the Marlins. But with MacKenzie Gore dealing with a fingernail issue and now pushed back to Friday, it was Corbin taking the mound this afternoon for his first career start at Comerica Park.

The bar was set low for the lefty with the 6.15 ERA, but he crossed it with plenty of room to spare, reaching the sixth inning while allowing only one run.

The Tigers had baserunners against Corbin, who retired the side only once, in the bottom of the fourth. But he got key ground ball outs in the first and second, and after surrendering a bloop RBI single to Mark Canha in the third, he struck out Riley Greene and Justyn-Henry Malloy to avoid any further damage.

By the time he departed with one out in the sixth, Corbin had completed one of his better starts of the season. He wasn’t in line for the win, but he most certainly gave his team a chance to win.

"I got into some bad counts, missed a couple early," he said. "But I was able to throw some offspeed in the zone, pitch on the corners, keep them off-balance a little bit. Just a strange inning where they scored, some weak contact that they found some holes."

With limited bullpen options, Martinez went first to Law to get out of the sixth, then watched as the right-hander hung a slider to Malloy and watched it fly to left for a go-ahead homer. But the Nationals had a quick answer for that, manufacturing yet another run in a manner that became too familiar the last few days.

Ildemaro Vargas, stepping to the plate with a runner on third and one out in the seventh, lofted a high fly ball to the warning track in right, plenty deep to score Joey Meneses with the tying run. Two innings earlier, the exact same scenario had played out, producing the Nats’ first run of the game.

And with that, the Nationals made some history, albeit obscure history. With six sacrifice flies, they broke the club record for a three-game series, a record that had stood since April 2005, the first month of the team’s existence in D.C.

The sixth of those sac flies tied the game at 2-2 and left the Nats in a position to extend their winning streak. But to pull it off, they were going to need a different set of relievers than usual to come through in the late innings. And when that didn’t happen, the streak was over.

"To win two out of three here was good," Corbin said. "I wanted to get the sweep today, but guys have been battling. Just looking forward to getting home and starting another winning streak."

Note: During the game, the Nationals announced they have claimed reliever Eduardo Salazar off waivers from the Mariners, who designated the right-hander for assignment earlier in the week.

Salazar, 26, has nine games of major league experience with the Reds and Dodgers, who lost him to the Mariners on a waiver claim in May. He only pitched in four games for Seattle’s Triple-A affiliate before getting DFA’d.

The Nationals optioned Salazar to Triple-A Rochester, where he’ll join the bullpen and become a potential call-up if the club needs relief help. He’s added to the 40-man roster, which now stands at 39.

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