Finnegan's ninth-inning meltdown spoils Nats' potential series win (updated)

CINCINNATI – The stage was set for another uplifting victory. Trey Lipscomb would be the hero. Other key young building blocks would have contributed. The Nationals just needed one more pitch from Kyle Finnegan.

And then, in what felt like a matter of seconds, it all collapsed.

One strike away from locking up the save, Finnegan instead surrendered a two-out double to Jonathan India, then back-to-back homers to Will Benson and Christian Encarnacion-Strand to deal the Nats a crushing 6-5 loss in the finale of their season-opening series.

"That's tough," manager Davey Martinez said. "Three-two, two outs. And then double, homer, homer. That's how the game ended. That's tough."

Handed a two-run lead for the bottom of the ninth, Finnegan seemed to be in complete control. He retired the first two batters he faced, then just needed to retire India to end it. But the Reds leadoff man kept battling, fouling off five straight fastballs before lining the 10th pitch of his at-bat into the left-field corner for a double.

"I felt like I attacked him well and was one strike away," Finnegan said. "Good piece of hitting for the double."

Benson didn't need nearly that much time. He drove Finnegan’s first pitch – a splitter that stayed up in the zone – to center field, where Victor Robles ran out of real estate to try to track it down, Benson rounding the bases having tied the game.

Hoping to catch the next batter off-guard, Finnegan started Encarnacion-Strand with back-to-back splitters as well. He got the Cincinnati No. 3 hitter to chase the first one, but then grooved the second and watched in horror as the ball sailed to left field and left no doubt about its destination. The Reds celebrated at the plate as Finnegan and Nationals trudged off the field, trying to comprehend what had just happened.

"You leave soft over the plate, that's what happens," Finnegan said, lamenting not his pitch selection but his pitch location. "I've got to be better there. ... It's a tough one. Two mistakes on a pitch that I usually execute pretty well. It hurts a little bit. We had a chance to take the series and get some momentum heading back home. I'm just ready to get back out there and get this one behind me."

There had been a lot to enjoy this weekend for the Nats, much of it the result of their young building blocks who played clutch, poised baseball. And nobody defined that more than Lipscomb, who in only two big league games has already shown off his wide-ranging skills.

Called up from Triple-A Rochester before ever playing a game after Nick Senzel fractured his thumb during pregame drills Thursday, Lipscomb stepped right in and looked the part of an experienced major leaguer. He went 1-for-4 with a stolen base and several standout plays at third base during Saturday’s win. He went 2-for-3 with a walk, two runs scored and his first extra-base hit today, a meaningful one at that.

With the game tied 3-3 in the top of the seventh, Lipscomb drove reliever Buck Farmer’s 1-2 fastball the other way, the ball carrying 384 feet to right-center and just beyond Benson’s leaping attempt. As he crossed the plate, the 23-year-old got a hug from Abrams and then a string of congrats from his teammates in the dugout.

By the end of the day, he also had the ball, which a Reds fan threw back onto the field in disgust, perhaps not realizing he could’ve bargained his way to an autographed bat had he simply held onto the ball and presented it to Lipscomb in person after the game.

"That's what I was doing all spring training: Battle with two strikes," Lipscomb said of his approach in the home run at-bat. "Go up there and try to get on base. And he left one over the middle, and I was able to do some damage."

The game began with a confident young pitcher on the mound for the Nationals. Jake Irvin closed out his spring with 15 consecutive scoreless innings, regularly getting quick outs and keeping his pitch count down. And two innings into his season debut, the right-hander had all the reason to feel great about himself. He faced the minimum through those two frames, striking out three, completing a nifty 3-6-1 double play and cranking his fastball up to 98 mph (rare territory for him).

But Irvin’s velocity decreased as the game progressed – most of his fastballs registered 93 mph in the fourth and fifth innings – and the results devolved from there. Back-to-back walks to open the third set the stage for the Reds, who got both runners home via India’s groundout and Benson’s double.

Four straight hits in the fourth led to one more run off Irvin, and it would’ve been worse if not for Jake Fraley taking off for second base way too soon on a steal attempt and easily getting thrown out. And though his starter made it through the fifth unscathed, Martinez decided not to press his luck any further and pulled him at only 80 pitches.

"I just wasn't in attack mode as much as I was in the first couple (innings)," Irvin said. "I've got to get back in there and make guys earn it."

The game was tied 3-3 at that point, thanks to one titanic blast from Abrams and one much-needed clutch hit from Thomas.

Abrams connected in the top of the third, launching a curveball from Nick Martinez way up the bleachers in right-center. Official distance: 429 feet, the longest home run of his career.

Two innings later, Thomas stepped up to bat with two runners in scoring position and an 0-for-10 batting line on the scoreboard. The Nats right fielder immediately put an end to that, driving Martinez’s first pitch to left for a two-run single and his first two RBIs of the young season.

It felt like that would be another positive development in a weekend full of them. It turned out to be just a nice silver lining to an agonizing loss.

"I'm pleased about how we played the game," Martinez said. "We played hard, we played tough. It's just unfortunate. When you get a chance to go into the ninth with your closer, usually good things happen. Tonight, it didn't happen. But we get to go home, have our home opener tomorrow and go 1-0 tomorrow."

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