The most important development of tonight’s ballgame on South Capitol Street was Jackson Rutledge’s second career start, one that saw the rookie right-hander reach the seventh inning on 78 pitches and allow only two runs.
The most satisfying moment of tonight’s game, though, came on one big swing from Joey Meneses, which ensured Rutledge’s quality start wouldn’t be for naught.
Meneses’ pinch-hit, three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh provided the clutch hit the Nationals had been seeking all night and ultimately propelled them to a 4-3 victory over the White Sox.
"It was beautiful," manager Davey Martinez said. "One thing I know about Joey: You put runners on base, there's a good chance he's going to hit it hard."
Shut down throughout the evening by José Ureña, who spent the summer pitching for Triple-A Rochester before getting released and picked up by Chicago, the Nats finally did something at the plate once they had the chance to face the White Sox bullpen.
Ildemaro Vargas drew a one-out walk, then took third on Carter Kieboom’s hit-and-run single off left-hander Aaron Bummer, putting the team in position to tie the game or perhaps take the lead. After Drew Millas struck out looking at a nasty slider on the outside corner, Martinez sent Meneses to the plate to pinch-hit for Blake Rutherford, then watched as Pedro Grifol countered with right-hander Bryan Shaw.
Meneses, getting a rare night off from the starting lineup, has been one of the Nationals’ best clutch hitters all season, perfectly content to take an opposite-field RBI single over a big blast. This time, he went for the big blast and connected beautifully on Shaw’s low slider, driving it into the left field stands for a three-run homer to bring the announced crowd of 23,936 to life at last.
"He has a very good cutter, 95 mph cutter, so I was more than anything anticipating that pitch," Meneses, who now has a team-high 84 RBIs with 10 games to play, said via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "And I saw, as I started swinging, it was a slider. That's why I was out in front a little bit."
The Nats had already gone to their bullpen at that point, so Robert Garcia was the pitcher of record and suddenly in line to earn his second career win (second in three days, for that matter). Hunter Harvey and Kyle Finnegan then finished it off in the eighth and ninth, though the slumping Finnegan gave up another run before securing the team's 67th win.
Any of them, of course, would happily give full credit to tonight’s starter, though, for putting them in a position to win the game.
If ever a clean first inning was in order, this was it for Rutledge, who gave up six hits (four of those batters eventually scoring) in the first inning of his big league career last week in Pittsburgh. The rookie didn’t have a 1-2-3 frame in him tonight, but he did post a zero, getting around a couple of singles to escape on 21 pitches (16 of which were strikes).
"He had a good tempo, good rhythm," Martinez said. "I think once he got through that first inning, he really knew: 'All I've got to do is throw strikes.' It makes things a lot easier for him when he pumps strikes."
That first inning set a positive tone for the night, and Rutledge kept it going throughout. He made one real mistake – a first-pitch changeup over the plate to Luis Robert Jr. that landed in the left field bleachers to open the top of the fourth – but otherwise was efficient and effective.
Rutledge and batterymate Drew Millas even solved their stolen base woes from last week, with Rutledge ducking as low as he could get and sticking his rear end toward the plate as Millas’ throw whizzed by and hit CJ Abrams on target to nail Tim Anderson in the top of the third.
"I got a little bit lower this time," he said with a laugh. "I don't know if I looked super athletic doing it. Maybe next time I'll just go face down on all fours."
Rutledge kept on going from there, scattering a few hits, issuing only one walk and cruising his way into the seventh inning on a mere 73 pitches, the deepest a Nats rookie had gone in his home debut since Stephen Strasburg in 2010.
The organization only let him take the mound for the seventh one time this season, June 15 for Double-A Harrisburg vs. Erie, but his low pitch count dictated he deserved a chance to do it tonight in his second major league start.
"I feel like that's my signature as a starting pitcher: I get deep in games," he said. "Obviously, this year's a little different. But last year, I got deep into games a lot. Obviously, I was in Low-A, so it's a little bit different. But just being a guy who saves the bullpen, being a guy who gets quick outs ... that's just really the approach I had today."
One pitch into the seventh, though, Rutledge was muttering to himself, having left a curveball over the plate to Yoan Moncada and watched it sail to right field for Chicago’s second leadoff homer of the night. He would face one more batter before Martinez signaled to the bullpen and gave his young starter a pat on the back before he walked back to the dugout to a nice ovation from the crowd. He would not emerge with his first career win, but he would leave a far better taste in everyone’s mouths than he did during his ragged debut last week.
"I was able to start getting in a real solid routine with all the trainers and the staff here," he said. "It definitely helped. I just felt really comfortable out there. I felt like my team had my back."
Once the ball connected off Meneses’ bat in the bottom of the inning, there was no doubt of that.
"I think most players, their first game in the big leagues, it's hard to control your emotions, your nerves," Meneses said of Rutledge. "I think that probably had a lot to do with his first outing. This time around, I think he was a lot better about being prepared and being able to control those emotions out there, and he had a good outing."