Irvin stares down Coors and thrives in the thin air

DENVER – Jake Irvin had never pitched at Coors Field before. The Nationals’ trip here last season came right in between the right-hander’s major league debut in D.C. and his second start in San Francisco, so he had no personal experience to go off as he prepared for Sunday’s outing against the Rockies.

So Irvin sought out a teammate with loads of experience pitching at high altitude: Patrick Corbin, who has made 13 career starts here. (All three as a member of the Nationals were quality starts, to boot.)

As he stood at his locker following a dominant performance late Sunday afternoon, Irvin noted the words of wisdom he received from Corbin.

“Obviously the elements are a little different than any of the other parks we play in,” he said. “I’ve got to give a lot of credit to Pat, because coming in here I asked him – he had pitched in Arizona for a while, so he played here a lot. He said you can’t really be intimidated by the ballpark and the conditions. Just pitch your game. That advice really helped.”

Irvin certainly stuck to his usual gameplan, relying primarily on fastballs and curveballs. And he executed that plan brilliantly, striking out 10 over six innings of one-run ball to keep the game close before the Nats rallied to win 2-1 in the ninth.

The 27-year-old became the first Nationals pitcher to strike out 10 batters in a game at Coors Field in the two decades since the club has made annual trips here. Max Scherzer never did it. Neither did Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez or anyone else who has worn a navy blue curly W cap in this ballpark.

“Ten strikeouts here?” closer Kyle Finnegan said. “That was as good as it gets.”

Countless visiting pitchers have come to Colorado over the years and complained about the lack of break on their breaking balls and the lack of sharpness on their fastballs. Irvin, though, experienced none of that, as far as he could tell.

His velocity was down about 1 mph on both his fastball and his curveball, but his spin rate remained the same. And most importantly, his command was excellent: He threw 20 of his 30 four-seam fastballs for strikes, and 31 of his 44 curveballs.

“It felt normal,” the right-hander said. “It’s good that we don’t see the metrics or anything like that (as the game is going on), so I couldn’t tell. I was just trying to throw it to a good location, and it felt very similar.”

Irvin’s lone mistake came in the bottom of the second when he served up a towering, 462-foot homer to Michael Toglia. Even that pitch, though – a 2-2 cutter down and in – was where he intended it to be.

“Not a pitch I normally throw down,” he said. “But I know he’s more of a high-ball hitter. Credit to him. He got the barrel to it and hit the crap out of it.”

Irvin responded to the homer by retiring 14 of the last 15 batters he faced. He struck out seven of eight during one stretch from the fourth to the sixth innings. And he departed on a scorching, 94-degree afternoon having thrown 98 total pitches across six frames.

“Once he found that curveball,” manager Davey Martinez said, “I watched him and thought: ‘Man, this could get interesting.’”

The only downside? The Nationals trailed 1-0 at the time, managing only one infield single off Rockies left-hander Kyle Freeland, who in his first start off the 60-day injured list denied Irvin any shot at a win.

He’s plenty used to that by now, though. The Nats have scored two or fewer runs in 11 of his 16 starts this season, which explains his pedestrian 5-6 record despite a sparkling 3.13 ERA and 1.087 WHIP.

Irvin won’t complain about the lack of run support, provided the team keeps winning the way it has this month to climb into wild card contention as the season nears its midpoint.

“If I give us a chance to win, I know we’re always in it,” he said. “Credit to their guy, Freeland. He’s a good pitcher, and to come off the IL and do that is pretty special. But our approach never changed, and you could see with the guys in the dugout, they’re fighting. They believe in one another. I’ve got a lot of faith in them. I’m trying to keep us in it, and they do great things.”

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