Kids come up big in win over Blue Jays (updated)

TORONTO – While they’re certainly doing everything they can to try to keep winning as many games as they can, the Nationals are still using the final month-plus of this ever-encouraging season to evaluate young players who could (or already do) fit into the long-term plan around here.

When both sides of the equation come together like they did tonight in a tense, 5-4 victory over the Blue Jays, it’s a win-win for the organization.

"We're playing the best ball we've been playing all season," said closer Kyle Finnegan, who survived a harrowing bottom of the ninth. "For the young guys to be a part of it, and to see they can contribute to a playoff-type atmosphere, is great for them."

The Nationals not only bounced back from rare back-to-back losses and gave themselves a shot at a sixth consecutive series victory Wednesday afternoon. They did so thanks to the contributions of young players, two of them key pieces to the rebuild, one of them a surprising potential addition to the list after he seemingly had been written off, the other a recent call-up who made his presence known tonight with a big-time moment in the field.

MacKenzie Gore overcame a laborious first few innings to finish strong, allowing just one run over five innings to emerge with the win. Keibert Ruiz’s three-run homer proved the difference. Carter Kieboom’s two-run homer added another chapter to the third baseman’s growing comeback campaign. And Jacob Young’s 300-foot strike from center field to the plate completed a brilliant double play to end an eighth inning that was about to turn south on the Nats.

And when Finnegan hung on for dear life in the ninth, loading the bases with nobody out but ultimately stranding the tying run on third, you had the best of both words: A win in front of a hostile crowd of 39,722 made possible by the kids.

"It was awesome for them to feel that adrenaline," manager Davey Martinez said. "That was a playoff game. That's what it felt like. Fans were into it. You had a good team on the other side there. The boys stepped up and played well. You can't ask for more than what they did today."

It began with Gore, whose challenge tonight was obvious: After Josiah Gray lasted only two innings Monday night, the Nationals needed length from tonight’s starter. Two innings in, that looked like the last thing they’d get from their young lefty.

The Blue Jays made Gore work like few lineups have this season, extending at-bats into the double digits, drawing two-out walks and fouling off pitches left and right. By the time he completed the bottom of the second, he hadn’t allowed a run but somehow had thrown 56 pitches.

Interestingly enough, 41 of those 56 pitches were four-seam fastballs, a far higher rate than has been typical for Gore. And that was the pitch the Blue Jays kept fighting: They wound up fouling off a whopping 21 of the 63 total fastballs he threw in the game.

"The off-speed was bad today," Gore said. "So we had to throw a lot of fastballs, and they didn't miss. They didn't have to really respect the off-speed. That's what happens in that situation. But we made it through that."

Indeed, only one of Gore’s pitches, though, actually resulted in a run scored off him: Davis Schneider blasted an 0-2 fastball to left for a leadoff homer in the third, the Toronto rookie’s sixth homer in the first 50 plate appearances of his career. And as his night progressed, Gore finally turned to his breaking balls and changeup and proceeded to get much quicker outs with them.

By the time he walked off the mound at the end of the fifth, Gore still had the one run charged against him, with a much more respectable pitch count of 106.

"Yeah, I want to go out there and be efficient and strike a lot of guys out. That would be great," the left-hander said. "But it's just not going to happen every time. We made it through it."

And he had himself in line to earn the win, thanks to a couple of big blasts from his teammates. Kieboom struck first, launching a first-pitch fastball from José Berríos some 410 feet to left field for a 2-0 lead in the top of the second, the latest big moment for the once-top prospect trying to resurrect his career over the final six weeks of the season.

Owner of eight career homers in 414 major league plate appearances from 2019-22, Kieboom now has three of them in his first six games back from Tommy John surgery and a brief stint at Triple-A Rochester. He’s hitting the ball with authority and savoring every moment he gets on the field in what he fully recognizes may be his last shot with the Nats.

"He's taking full advantage of this opportunity, which I love," Martinez said. "He put all the work in to get back here, and he's earned the chance to come back and try to help us win. He's stepped up and has done a great job."

Ruiz is under no such pressure, having already signed an eight-year, $50 million extension. But after looking lost at the plate Monday during a rare three-strikeout game, he wanted better results tonight.

And he got them with one big swing in the top of the fifth tonight, driving a fastball from Berríos down the right field line for a three-run homer, then looking toward the Nationals dugout and pounding his chest as he jogged toward first base.

"It was a good moment," he said. "It was two outs, and we were winning 5-1. I was just looking for a good pitch to hit and got the hit."

Ruiz’s 16th homer of the year gave his team a 5-1 lead and gave Martinez the opportunity to entrust the rest of the game to his top three relievers. Mason Thompson recorded five outs while allowing one run. Hunter Harvey also allowed a run over 1 1/3 innings, though he would’ve been charged with another if not for Young’s arm.

Making his third big league start, Young recorded his first career hit (via a perfectly placed bunt), his first career stolen base and most importantly his first career outfield assist with a 300-foot strike to Ruiz on the fly to nail Alejandro Kirk tagging up from third. The portly Kirk isn’t exactly the sport’s fastest runner, but it still required a perfect throw by Young and a good catch and tag from Ruiz without blocking the plate to pull off an 8-2 double play that left the Nats dugout roaring with approval.

"I was just hoping it was the right distance," Young said with a laugh. "I just wanted to make sure it was the right distance so he'd have a play on it. And luckily, it was."

Little did everybody realize there was still plenty more drama to experience before this one was over. Finnegan entered for the bottom of the ninth and immediately surrendered singles on each of his first two pitches, then issued a three-pitch walk following a rare pitch clock violation to load the bases with nobody out.

The Blue Jays would get one run home against Finnegan via an RBI groundout, but the burgeoning closer buckled down when he had to and retired the last three batters he faced to secure the most harrowing of his 25 saves to date.

"Not the ideal start there," he said. "Two hits and a walk on five pitches? I wasn't even sure if that was possible. ... I put myself into that moment, but those are the moments you dream about when you're a kid: bases loaded, two outs in the bottom of the ninth. It was fun."

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