SAN FRANCISCO – Jake Irvin took the mound at Oracle Park tonight, already the proud recipient of a five-run lead thanks to a sudden barrage of hits from his teammates in the top of the first, and went to work. With a purpose.
Irvin worked fast. He threw strikes. He changed speeds. He bounced off the mound every time he recorded a strikeout or induced a double play.
And the rookie right-hander did it all as well as anyone else who has taken the mound wearing a Nationals uniform so far this season. And better than anyone who has ever taken the mound wearing a curly W cap with so little experience under his belt.
With a crisp, 6 1/3 innings of scoreless ball, Irvin mowed down the Giants lineup. And thanks to that early barrage from his teammates against opposing starter Anthony DeSclafani, the Nats rewarded him with his first career win in a 5-1 game that saw the Nats score all of their runs in the top of the first.
In a game that required a scant 2 hours, 14 minutes to be completed, the Nationals improved to 14-14 since a ragged 1-6 opening week to the season. They did it tonight behind a most unlikely pitching prodigy in Irvin, who in his second major league start looked every bit like an established veteran who had a plan to beat an opposing lineup and executed it to perfection.
"I absolutely loved watching him pitch," manager Davey Martinez said. "I enjoyed it very much. For his second start, he did really well."
Irvin, who acquitted himself well but faded quickly during his 4 1/3-inning debut last week against the Cubs, cruised through this outing. In the process, he became the first pitcher in club history to toss at least six scoreless innings in one of his first two big league starts.
"It's definitely good for the rhythm, but I'll tell you what: Putting up five runs in the first inning definitely takes a lot of pressure off me," he said. "Huge credit to the offense. Huge credit to the defense, too. They played awesome behind me. It makes it a very easy task for me to go out there and do what I did when they did what they did in the first inning."
The 26-year-old Minnesota native, a fourth-round pick of the Nationals in 2018 who only really put himself on the organizational map last season after returning from Tommy John surgery, had everything working tonight. He scattered three singles, one double and three walks, never giving up a hit with a runner in scoring position. He struck out five. He induced three double plays. And he showed off the sharp-breaking curveball that helped convince club officials he might have a future here.
"I can see his energy and his adrenaline," catcher Keibert Ruiz said. "He likes to compete. I like that, too. He's a great guy, and he's got really good stuff."
His starter’s pitch count still a modest 79 after the sixth, Martinez gave Irvin a chance to re-take the mound for the seventh. Three batters in – a long fly ball to the warning track, a single and a walk – Martinez decided not to press his luck any further. He walked to the mound and took the ball from Irvin, who received fist bumps and pats on the back from his manager and the entire infield after a job exceptionally well done.
"I asked him how did that feel, and he said: 'Really good,'" Martinez said. "I said: 'It was awesome. Not just good. You were awesome today. Way to go.' It was a good moment for him, and I was very proud of him."
Carl Edwards Jr. got out of that jam, then another of his own making in the eighth. Andres Machado surrendered a leadoff homer in the ninth but finished it off after that, allowing Martinez to avoid summoning his usual late-inning arms for a change.
The top of the first was notable not only for the five runs the Nationals scored, but for the speed in which they did it. Every batter who stepped to the plate did so looking to swing at the first decent pitch DeSclafani threw. So not only did seven of their first eight batters record hits, they did it on a grand total of 18 pitches.
The hits came fast and furious. Lane Thomas singled on the second pitch of the game. Luis García singled on the very next pitch. Ruiz singled two pitches later, but then was tagged out following some baserunning shenanigans that could’ve cost the Nats big-time but ultimately became an afterthought.
"You've got to keep your head up when you're the trailing runner," Martinez said of that particular play, in which Thomas didn't get a good jump and had to hold at third base while García and Ruiz kept running behind him. "I don't know, Lane saw the ball in the air and reacted to go back. But the ball's down the line. You know what? It worked out."
That’s because Joey Meneses drove in the game’s first run with an RBI single, a feat duplicated two batters later by Dominic Smith. Alex Call finally delivered the team’s first extra-base hit, ripping an RBI double to right-center. And when CJ Abrams sent a two-run single up the middle, the Nationals had themselves a 5-0 lead in the blink of an eye.
Was it a concerted effort to pounce on DeSclafani before he had a chance to get ahead in the count? Was it merely an aggressive approach some of these hitters typically display anyway? Did they pick up something in the veteran right-hander that allowed them to enjoy so much success right off the bat?
"A pitcher that throws a lot of strikes in the zone, you try to be aggressive and take advantage of some of the pitches that are in the zone," said García, who is 10-for-18 on this road trip. "Davey's always being positive and letting us know what he wants us to do. Today it just worked out and took advantage and were aggressive within our zone."
Whatever the case, those dramatic results were fleeting, because DeSclafani locked it down after the top of the first and turned downright dominant. After opening the night 7-for-8 (5-for-6 with runners in scoring position), the Nationals went 3-for-22 the rest of the night against DeSclafani, who still managed to complete seven innings despite the disastrous opening frame.
No matter, because as well as the Giants’ starter did to bounce back from a ragged first inning, the Nationals’ starter never needed to bounce back from anything. He was in complete control from the very beginning, and having the time of his life as he did it.
"Baseball's always supposed to be fun, right?" Irvin said. "Just went out there, made pitches, same old thing. Having a blast."