Franco delivers heroics to put away Pirates (updated)

Entering the eighth inning of tonight’s game, the Nationals offense had yet to take advantage of the opportunity provided by starter Erick Fedde and the bullpen. In a low-scoring game, the only offense to that point had come in the sixth inning when Luis García came around to score after a leadoff double to the right-center gap. Back-to-back groundouts to the right side of the infield allowed García to advance and eventually cross home plate with Yadiel Hernandez getting credit for the RBI.

But García delivered another leadoff double in the eighth, setting up Maikel Franco’s late-inning heroics in the Nationals’ 3-2 win over the Pirates in front of 18,213 fans at Nationals Park.

With García standing on second base, two outs and the Nats down 2-1 to the Bucs, Franco sent a first-pitch slider from right-hander Chris Stratton 105.5 mph off his bat and 418 feet to left-center field. The Nats third baseman gave an emphatic high-five to first base coach Eric Young Jr. as he rounded the bases as what would prove to be the game-winning run.

“I know we were just down for one run," Franco said after the game. "Obviously, I just think about see the ball and drive the ball, just get a hit to try to tie the ballgame. And I got better results. He threw me a slider first pitch and I was able to put good contact on it. And I got the success.”

That success sent Nats Park into a frenzy as the home team celebrated energetically in front of the dugout.

"My team is down for one run, and I was able to just put my team up and just get excited," Franco said. "I know the fans get excited. The dugout gets excited. And I got excited, too.”

“He's that guy. He's that guy that brings a lot of energy every day. It was electric," manager Davey Martinez said of Franco's big moment. "You saw the guys in front of the dugout, which I'd rather them do it in the dugout, but you know it's a big moment. So let them cheer, let them celebrate. Yeah, everybody was excited, so good for Frankie.”

“That's Mikey," Franco said with a laugh. "So that's what I have to do. Just come in every single day and bring some energy for everybody, for my team. And it's about just coming in every single day and have some fun. And that's what I'll continue to do.”

This came after the top of the Nationals order was able to find success against rookie right-hander Miguel Yajure and the Pirates bullpen, but Nelson Cruz wasn’t able to come up with a big knock.

César Hernández, Juan Soto and Josh Bell collectively reached eight times. But Cruz went 0-for-4 and stranded seven runners by himself, three with two outs. All four of his at-bats ended an inning with at least one runner on base. There was also a scary moment in the fifth when Cruz fouled a ball off the lower part of his left leg and went to the ground. Martinez and director of athletic training Paul Lessard came out to check on him, but the veteran designated hitter stayed in the game.

Before Franco’s home run, as a team the Nationals went 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position and had left nine runners on base. But all they needed was one more chance for a big knock.

“They came out and just kept playing," Martinez said. "We had some opportunities early, left a lot of guys on base, but they kept playing good baseball.”

García kept playing good baseball as he finished 3-for-4 with two doubles and two runs scored.

“I just try to stay quiet and kind of slow myself down," said García, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "I have quick hands, so I let them do the work. I'm trying to focus on staying up the middle and opposite field. And if I get pitched inside, I just react to the pitch.”

On the mound, Fedde has been trying to be more efficient with his pitches. He’s been able to provide the Nationals with some decent length as of late, but high pitch counts have cut his outings shorter than he would like.

He completed six shutout innings Tuesday in Baltimore, but on 97 pitches. He completed 5 ⅓ in his outing before that against the Braves, but on 111 pitches. He completed 5 ⅔ innings in his outing before that against the Brewers, but on 98 pitches.

The problem has been getting into deep counts. Even when Fedde gets ahead of hitters, he hasn’t been able to put them away in the next couple of pitches, sometimes running the count full and driving his pitch count through the roof.

“The one thing I want to see today is putaway pitches,” manager Martinez said before tonight’s game. “He gets 0-2 a lot on hitters. I don't want him to be out there throwing, going counts 2-2, 3-2. I want him in three, four pitches or less try to get hitters out.”

While he was able to limit the damage, Fedde wasn’t able to do that on a consistent enough basis to keep his pitch count down and keep him in the game.

Of the 20 batters Fedde faced, he only allowed five to reach, but three of them reached after getting to two-strike counts. Overall, 13 of the at-bats against the right-hander got to two-strike counts and five reached full counts, driving up his pitch count once again.

“Walking off the field, I felt terrible," Fedde said. "My stuff wasn't great today, especially weirdly after the first inning because I felt so good after that first inning. But just didn't have my best stuff today, but lucky enough to keep the team in it and they made it pay off.”

The scoring started in the second inning after a leadoff walk issued to Pirates DH Daniel Vogelbach, who entered the night batting .215 on the season. After a fielder’s choice and ground-rule double moved the runner to third, Josh VanMeter’s sac fly on a 2-2 cutter put Fedde in a 1-0 hole.

Fedde would then allow a runner to reach in each subsequent inning he pitched, capped off by Oniel Cruz’s solo home run in the fifth. The Pirates rookie, who just made his season debut a week ago, hit his first homer of the season on a 3-1 cutter from Fedde, sending it 109.8 mph off the bat and depositing it 408 feet away over the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center field.

“He struggled to find the strike zone," Davey Martinez said of Fedde. "He was behind a lot, fell behind a lot. I mean, look, he battled really hard to get through what he did. He had a lot, you know, 100 pitches in five innings. I give him credit for that. Like I said before, I think that's part of maturity that some days are better than others, but he's able to go out there and compete when his stuff isn't very good. He did that today. And he kept us in the game and he kept us close.”

The Nationals starter again wasn’t able to provide as much length as he would have liked. Fedde completed five innings on 100 pitches, 55 strikes, and gave up three hits, two runs and two walks while striking out four.

“It's definitely frustrating," Fedde said. "But over my last three starts, I feel like I've at least been in the chance to give the team three opportunities to win. If I'm working on stuff and that's still the result, I can't be that upset at the end of the day.”

Out of the bullpen, Carl Edwards Jr. impressed with two scoreless innings, including a shutdown frame in the seventh and a nice job working around a base hit in the eighth, on 28 pitches.

Fedde, Andres Machado and Edwards kept the Nationals in the game long enough to give them a chance to win. And after so many late-inning chances passed them by, the Nats finally got a clutch hit for a dramatic win.

“Machado gives us good innings, CJ comes in and gives us two great innings and I really felt like we had a chance to win the game, especially with the guys coming up," Davey Martinez said.

Kyle Finnegan entered the ninth inning and worked around a double to earn his first save of the season.

Entering tonight, the Nationals were 2-43 this season when trailing after seven innings. Now they're 3-43.

Overall, they are 28-48 and have lost two of five games against the now 39-44 Pirates this season. They have two more chances to at least win, if not sweep, this home series before Thursday’s off-day and the Marlins come into town over the holiday weekend.

“Like I told them: Hey, a win's a win's a win's a win, right?" Davey Martinez said. "No matter how you do it. But keep playing hard and that's what they did tonight. And I'm happy that they came through and they did well.”

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