Irvin finishes stellar spring with another gem; Gore to start home opener (updated)

JUPITER, Fla. – It hadn’t really dawned on Jake Irvin that his final start of the spring came against what very well may be the Cardinals’ Opening Day lineup, which the young Nationals right-hander proceeded to hold to one hit and two weeks over six sparkling innings.

Asked if he felt it was significant he performed that well against a full major league lineup, Irvin shrugged.

“Sure, I can’t say necessarily that it is,” he replied. “For me, it’s competing, throwing strikes, a lot of strikes today. That’s the main goal.”

Consider this, then, another important step in Irvin’s development throughout a spring that proved to be exceptional. After getting roughed up once March 1 while admittedly working on some new things, he flipped the script completely, focused on competing to the best of his abilities.

And the results were fantastic. Over his final three Grapefruit League starts, Irvin tossed 15 scoreless innings, scattering four hits and two walks while striking out 13.

“He’s worked all spring training to get better,” manager Davey Martinez said. “And he’s throwing the ball really well.”

Irvin came to camp with an inside track at a spot in the Opening Day rotation. His performance over the last three weeks erased any doubts about his standing. The 27-year-old, who made his first 24 big league starts last season, will be the Nats’ third starter, taking the mound for their March 31 series finale in Cincinnati behind Opening Day starter Josiah Gray and No. 2 starter Patrick Corbin.

“I can’t wait, man,” he said. “I think we’re going to do some pretty cool things, shock some people. And I’m very excited about it.”

That bumps MacKenzie Gore to the fourth starter’s spot, but Martinez specified he wanted to set the 25-year-old left-hander up to start the Nationals’ April 1 home opener against the Pirates.

That means the club’s top two young starters will be on the mound for the two most significant games of the season’s first week. That didn’t happen by accident.

* Trey Lipscomb continued to make his case for a spot on the Opening Day roster with yet another standout showing during this afternoon’s split-squad, 2-2 tie against St. Louis.

Lipscomb went 3-for-4, the first of those hits coming off Cardinals’ Opening Day starter Miles Mikolas, raising his spring training batting average to a robust .396 and his OPS to .955.

The 2022 third-round draft pick is the last remaining top prospect in big league camp, and by all indications, he has a good chance of making the team, whether as the starting second baseman or perhaps as a jack-of-all-trades who plays multiple positions.

“Hey, it is spring training. But he is hitting the ball hard,” Martinez said. “And what I love about him is he doesn’t try to do too much. He stays in the middle of the field. He stays on breaking balls really well. He hits fastballs. The kid plays the game the right way.”

Sitting in the clubhouse this morning, Lipscomb looked to his left and saw a string of empty lockers that only one day earlier was filled by fellow prospects and friends James Wood, Dylan Crews, Brady House and Robert Hassell III. All were reassigned to minor league camp Friday, while Lipscomb remains in contention for a spot on the club.

“I’ve got the same mentality as when I started camp,” he said. “The best nine guys are going to go out there and play the field and hit in the lineup. We’re here to try to win a championship. That’s where I’m at.”

* Tanner Rainey followed Irvin out of the bullpen this afternoon and threw a scoreless inning on 16 pitches (nine strikes) despite allowing a single and a walk. The 31-year-old has now made eight appearances this spring, distancing himself further from his Tommy John surgery of late 2022.

Rainey has been fully healthy all spring, the most encouraging sign for him. But it’s notable that his fastball velocity is still in the 91-93 mph range. He has insisted all along that’s not unusual for him, and that it will climb once the regular season begins. (He averaged 96-97 mph pre-surgery.)

“I believe when we get under the big lights, it will tick up a bit,” Martinez said. “He’s done it every spring. I don’t know why. Only time will tell, but I think it will come out. I don’t know if we’re going to see the 97s, 98s. But it should be in the mid-90s.”

* Josiah Gray was erratic in his final tune-up before Opening Day. Starting the nightcap against the Marlins, the right-hander gave up a pair of homers in the top of the first, then proceeded to strike out four batters in a row, then gave up two more runs in the fourth and was pulled with his pitch count already up to 75.

It was Gray’s second straight subpar outing since he was informed he’s starting Thursday’s season opener in Cincinnati. He finished his spring with a 6.61 ERA in five Grapefruit League starts, but he allowed zero or one run in three of those five outings.

“Stat-wise, it wasn’t great,” he admitted. “You kind of look at it that way. But I always break it down outing by outing. … I think it was an OK spring. The things I’ve worked on have helped me elevate my arsenal. But I think there’s a lot of leaps still to be made. I’m just excited to get back to work tomorrow and see where we can get better.”

* Derek Law and Jacob Barnes have done just about everything in his control to earn spots in the bullpen, punctuating a strong spring with dominant performances tonight.

Law, who signed a minor league deal early in camp, pitched a scoreless top of the sixth, then returned for the seventh and struck out Jesus Sanchez, Josh Bell and Jazz Chisholm Jr. in succession. All told, Law pitched 9 1/3 innings this spring, allowing one unearned run on three hits and three walks while striking out 12 batters.

Barnes, who also came to came late on a minor league deal, tossed a scoreless ninth and struck out three. He now owns an 0.87 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 10 1/3 innings this spring.

It appears Law and Barnes are competing with fellow right-hander Matt Barnes for the final two spots in the Opening Day bullpen (assuming Robert Garcia makes it as the group’s lone lefty). Matt Barnes, who signed even later than the other two, has made four scoreless appearances to date and is scheduled to appear in Sunday’s Grapefruit League finale.

“It’s been really tough,” Martinez said. “They’ve all been good.”

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