Gore, Thompson, Finnegan combine to hold off Cubs (updated)

CHICAGO – Whether it was a concession to a depleted bullpen that is running out of experienced late-inning arms or a concerted attempt to push a young starting pitcher to a place he hasn’t been often but eventually will need to reach, MacKenzie Gore took the mound for the bottom of the seventh tonight at Wrigley Field.

This was only the third time in Gore’s young career he had seen the seventh, the second time this season. His pitch count stood at 93. He was working on 10 full days of rest, and his previous start only lasted 17 pitches because of a rain delay.

Davey Martinez watched from the dugout as the 24-year-old left-hander promptly served up a two-run homer to Patrick Wisdom on his 106th pitch of the night, forcing the Nationals manager to entrust the rest of the game to that depleted bullpen.

A depleted bullpen that still managed to get the final eight outs from Mason Thompson and Kyle Finnegan required to lock up a 7-5 victory over the Cubs that tested everyone’s nerves and hearts.

"You can't say enough good things about the bats today," Gore said. "And Finny and Mason going an inning-plus, they've been doing that all year. You can't say enough good things about them." 

With Hunter Harvey now on the 15-day injured list with an elbow strain, Thompson and Finnegan stand as the Nats’ only remaining late-inning arms. And it’s not like either right-hander is battle-tested over the course of a long career.

No matter, they got the job done tonight. Thompson replaced Gore and finished the seventh, then got two outs in the eighth despite allowing two hits. Finnegan then entered for the critical at-bat of the game and got pinch-hitter Mike Tauchman to line out to center to escape that jam before returning for the ninth.

Three more outs (all via strikeout) from the closer-turned-setup man-turned-closer-again finished the job and made a winner out of Gore on a night he was pushed by his manager.

"It's an opportunity," Finnegan said of the domino effect of Harvey's injury. "A situation like this is kind of how I grew into the player I am now. It's going to be exciting for these young guys to step up and pitch in some situations they haven't. And I'll do best I can to hold down my job at the end of the game."

Thompson and Finnegan were pushed beyond one inning apiece tonight to pull out this win. Come Tuesday, neither is likely to be available for similar duty.

"We can't do this every day with just two guys," Martinez said. "We've got to use those other guys in the 'pen, and they've got to be ready to go."

Gore experienced an up-and-down night, overcoming a long second inning to cruise through his next three. But he was victimized by the longball late, serving up a two-run homer to Ian Happ in the sixth in advance of Wisdom’s two-run blast in the seventh.

His 106 pitches matched his season high and fell two shy of the career high he set last year while pitching for the Padres. If he’s going to develop into the ace the Nats believe he can be, he’ll need to start doing this with more regularity.

"If you get into the seventh, you're doing some things right," Gore said. "But that's why this game is tough. You've got to make one pitch at a time. And if you make a bad one, they hit homers."

The Nationals made sure to give Gore some breathing room before he ever took the mound, jumping out to a quick 2-0 lead in the top of the first, thanks to the continued exploits of their new leadoff man and a welcome blast from their returning No. 3 hitter.

CJ Abrams, named National League Player of the Week earlier in the afternoon, put himself in scoring position right off the bat by getting hit by a pitch and then successfully stealing second base despite initially being picked off by Drew Smyly. Moments later, Jeimer Candelario (back in the lineup after missing nearly three full games with a bruised right thumb) turned on an inside fastball and launched it down the left field line for a two-run homer.

That Candelario homered on the first pitch he saw since Friday was impressive enough. That he did it on a pitch beyond the inner edge of the strike zone suggested his thumb was feeling just fine.

"That was a very good sign," Martinez said. "I'm glad he did that. ... He's a big part of our lineup, and I was glad to see him in there, and he hits a big home run for us today."

The Nationals kept the pressure on Smyly throughout his start. They scored two more runs in the fourth, getting a Keibert Ruiz leadoff walk, a Stone Garrett double, a run-scoring groundout by Dominic Smith and an RBI single by Luis García. García would add another RBI in the sixth when his sacrifice fly drove in Garrett, who was gifted a double when center fielder Cody Bellinger lost his routine fly ball in the twilight.

Pitching with a lead from the outset, Gore went to work. Four of his first five innings were outstanding. Perfect, actually. A 32-pitch bottom of the second, though, marred the outing, even though only one run scored.

Even so, Gore’s pitch count was a modest 75 when he took the mound for the sixth, looking to finish his night with a flourish. Two batters later, he was watching Happ round the bases following a laser over the left field wall, the Nats’ four-run lead now down to two runs.

Ruiz would get those two runs back immediately for his batterymate, crushing a 400-foot homer to right in the top of the seventh to make it 7-3 and leave himself an unlikely triple shy of the cycle.

"It's always good to see results," Ruiz said. "I feel like I know I've been in a struggle moment, but in those moments I feel like I'm hitting the ball good, too. I've just got to keep doing and don't put my head down. Keep going with this moment right now."

It was then up to his manager to decide how best to navigate the final three innings of this game, whether to push a young starter or try to eke out a win with a depleted bullpen.

"We were hoping to get him to about 105-110 pitches," Martinez said. "He was throwing the ball well. And I think when I took him out, he still had a little bit left in the tank. ... But he pitched really well. He had one inning where he fell behind some hitters but was able to get out of it. And then he came back and gave us what we needed."

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