Jake Irvin did his part in his major league debut to give the Nationals a chance to win. His teammates then did just enough to actually emerge with the win.
CJ Abrams drove in the go-ahead run in the bottom of the seventh for the second straight night, and the Nats bullpen tossed 4 2/3 innings of scoreless ball following Irvin’s solid-if-abbreviated first career start to beat the Cubs, 2-1, and ensure at least a split of this four-game series.
Called up from Triple-A Rochester to make his debut five years after the organization selected him from the University of Oklahoma in the fourth round of the draft, Irvin survived some occasionally erratic command to hold Chicago’s lineup to one run before departing with one out in the fifth.
The 26-year-old right-hander was rated the Nationals’ 20th-best prospect by MLB Pipeline. He wound up outperforming several far more highly touted pitchers who have come and gone over the years, and gave club officials enough reason to want to see more of him.
"This is something you dream of since the day you pick up a baseball," he said. "I'm on top of the world. And props to the team, man. The guys played great behind me."
Irvin departed with the game tied 1-1. It remained that way until the seventh, when Lane Thomas ripped a leadoff double down the left field line, then wound up on third base when Ian Happ misplayed what he expected would be a carom off the side wall. Moments later, Abrams (whose RBI single in the same inning Tuesday night gave the Nats the lead for good) delivered another clutch hit, lining a single over the shortstop’s head to bring Thomas home.
"Lane with that triple was clutch," Abrams said. "I just wanted to get the job done. Saw the ball up, put a good swing on it."
The Nationals bullpen took care of everything else. Andrés Machado, Carl Edwards Jr., Hunter Harvey and Kyle Finnegan closed out the one-run win, with Finnegan stranding the tying run at third base thanks a game-ending 6-4-3 double play, to ensure Irvin’s efforts weren’t for naught.
"Hats off to him," Finnegan said. "We all know debuts are a coin flip. It's a long, stressful day, and he went out there and just had a professional approach. Started off a little shaky, but he settled in there and gave us four-plus really good innings."
Shaky is a fair way to describe the very beginning of Irvin's night. On a raw, occasionally rainy, 54-degree evening, Irvin took the mound in short sleeves. The Minnesota native surely wasn’t fazed by the conditions for his major league debut. He did, however, have just a bit of trouble with his very first pitch, a 94 mph fastball that drilled an unsuspecting Nico Hoerner right on the nameplate of his jersey.
"I've gotta imagine I'm one of few to do that, right?" he said. "I can't imagine many other guys have plunked the first guy, the first pitch in their debut. Just laugh it off, man. Next hitter."
Irvin actually managed to smile after that gaffe and got down to business. His first inning was shaky, with a walk of Happ and a two-out RBI single by Seiya Suzuki giving the Cubs a quick 1-0 lead. But he got through it without any real serious damage and then looked much more comfortable the rest of his night.
"'Well, you covered all the bases,'" manager Davey Martinez told the rookie at the end of the first. "'You hit a guy. You walked a guy. A guy scored. Now you're loose. Go throw strikes.' And he handled it really well."
Sticking mostly to a mid-90s fastball and sweeping curveball, Irvin mixed in the occasional changeup and sinker to keep the Chicago hitters honest. His command wasn’t always on point – he finished with only 45 of 81 pitches for strikes – but he didn’t allow much hard contact. Both hits he surrendered were groundball singles, one of them never leaving the infield.
By the top of the fifth, though, Irvin’s command really faltered. He walked Patrick Wisdom to begin the inning, prompting Martinez to get Machado warming in the bullpen. And after he walked Hoerner two batters later, he was left to hand the ball to his manager and walk back to the dugout, the recipient of warm applause from the crowd.
"It just feels great," Irvin said. "I think it says a lot about perseverance, and I think every guy in this locker room can tell you the same thing: Getting here is no easy task. And you only debut once. So, it's pretty awesome."
Machado pulled off a magic trick, recording two outs on one pitch to end the inning and allow Irvin to depart having allowed only one run over his 4 1/3 innings. Alas, that still wasn’t enough to end the Nationals’ streak of major league debut futility. Since Stephen Strasburg’s ballyhooed breakout night in June 2010, 16 Nats rookies starters have made their big league debuts, none of them emerging with a win.
Irvin won’t ever get another chance to win his first major league start, but he should get another chance to earn his first major league win. Though Martinez was careful not to commit to anything beyond this outing, the Nationals do need somebody to take Chad Kuhl’s place in the rotation, with that turn next scheduled to come up Monday in San Francisco. Irvin seemingly did enough tonight to warrant sticking around for a little while.
"Uh, I've got to talk to the big guy about that, right?" Martinez said with a laugh, dancing around the subject until he first meets with general manager Mike Rizzo. "I like him, though. I really do. I would love to give him another shot."