MILWAUKEE – That the Nationals found themselves in this position tonight – tie game in the eighth inning – after the kind of start they got from Trevor Williams, was quite the surprise.
Truth be told, this game never should’ve been there for the taking, not after Williams needed an astounding 70 pitches to complete two innings and left his bullpen to pick up from there.
And yet, there it was, right there for the taking thanks to a yeoman’s effort from that bullpen and a lineup that scratched and clawed its way back from an early deficit to tie it up in the eighth.
Which perhaps only made the events that followed sting even more.
Kyle Finnegan, pitching for the first time in a week, loaded the bases in the bottom of the eighth, was one pitch away from getting out of the jam, then gave up the grand slam to Mark Canha that flipped this game right back to the Brewers, who wound up winning 9-5.
"We battled. We battled the whole time, got back into the game, and unfortunately we lost," second baseman Luis García said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "But it showed that we had a lot of fight in us."
Down 3-0 after Williams’ disastrous first inning and 5-1 after the fifth, the Nationals fought their way back, getting three runs in the sixth and then the game-tying RBI single from Jake Alu in the top of the eighth. But tasked with keeping the game tied into the ninth, Finnegan instead let it blow up on him.
Unused for seven days because his team was never in a position when it needed its closer, Finnegan entered with one out in the bottom of the eighth, manager Davey Martinez perhaps hoping to get multiple innings from the fresh arm. But Finnegan never made it to the ninth. He gave up an immediate double to Tyrone Taylor, then an infield single to Sal Frelick to put himself in a jam.
Though he got William Contreras to ground to first for the second out of the inning, Finnegan couldn’t put away Carlos Santana when he had the chance, walking the No. 3 hitter on a 3-2 pitch. That brought Canha to the plate, and pitching coach Jim Hickey to the mound. And before Hickey could take a seat in the dugout, Canha had launched Finnegan’s first-pitch splitter deep to left for the game-changing grand slam that made everything that came before it feel moot.
"My stuff was coming out pretty good today and had a little cut on it, which I should've recognized a little earlier," Finnegan said. "I threw a couple splitters before that (one) that cut back to the left. And after the mound visit, we thought my matchup against him was a good splitter down and in, and I just didn't execute it. It hung up, went over the plate, and he put a really good swing on it and hit it out of the park."
Williams entered this one already on thin ice, having struggled mightily in each of his last two starts. And with his workload rising to a level he hadn’t seen in four years, each time he takes the mound these days could be the last time he does so in 2023.
Tonight’s results, then, won’t do much to make the case for him to get another start. The first inning was as laborious as it gets, with Williams needing an astounding 47 pitches to notch three outs, the Brewers sending all nine batters to the plate, six of them reaching base, three of them scoring.
The second inning saw only three batters step to the plate, and even so, Williams still needed to throw 23 pitches to get back to the dugout. His stuff not nearly effective enough to put away hitters, he was the victim of 16 foul balls, the Brewers just toying with him until they found a pitch they could put into play.
"With the long first inning, you just put yourself in a hole, put the team in a hole," he said. "I told Davey I'm going to give it the best I've got for the rest of the way. I talked him into the second and tried to talk him into the third, but we put ourselves in a tough position. I put (the bullpen) in a tough position, and they had to dig out of that hole. But I'm proud of the guys how they battled the whole game and didn't give up."
After 70 pitches in a mere two innings, Martinez decided enough was enough. Williams now sports a 5.55 ERA over 141 innings. And there’s ample reason to question if that’s the end of the line for him this year.
"He had a lot of pitches, and he wanted to go back out there," Martinez said. "I just told him: 'At this time of year, I'm not going to do that to you. That's a lot.' He's been a workhorse for us all year. I wasn't going to send him back out there."
In spite of all that, Williams somehow only allowed three runs tonight. And because of that, this game was still within reach, even though the Nationals now needed seven innings from their bullpen to pull off a win.
It wasn’t simple, and some of those relievers were just as inefficient as their starter was, but they did manage to keep the game within striking distance, with Amos Willingham and Andres Machado each allowing one run despite a lot of baserunners and a lot of pitches themselves.
Now, the Nats just needed to rally against a former Cy Young Award winner who opened his night with three consecutive strikeouts on a total of 11 pitches. García finally broke the ice against Corbin Burnes in the top of the third, homering to right for his first extra-base hit since his return from Triple-A Rochester. García would also play a key role in the three-run rally that knocked Burnes from the game in the sixth.
The Nationals had zero extra-base hits during this rally, but they did have a string of quality plate appearances leading to three walks and three singles. Joey Meneses delivered yet another opposite-field, RBI knock. Carter Kieboom beat out a sharp grounder up the middle to drive in another run. And then the free-swinging García found the patience to lay off three straight two-strike pitches and draw the bases-loaded walk that cut the deficit to 5-4.
"More than anything, I felt good that I was able to help the team and bring in a run in that situation, get us closer, give us a little bit of an edge there," García said. "But I felt good I was able to help the team in that particular at-bat."
Now they just needed to find a way to scratch out one more run and improbably get their starter off the hook long after he departed the game.
If only that had been enough to leave the ballpark with a win in hand.
"It shows character to do what we did today," Martinez said. "We were down early. Trevor could only give us two innings. And these guys fought back. We tied the game. And it stinks when you have that feeling like we might come back and win this game, and then...
"We had our best guy out there, and they beat us."