The Nationals’ clutch hits have come in bunches. Either they get a lot or none at all.
And their bullpen hasn’t always been clutch. Either its lockdown or shaky.
For the first half of today’s finale against the Padres, it looked like it was going to be one of those games where they would get neither. But then the script flipped in the seventh inning, as the Nats put up five runs to take a 6-5 lead and the relievers kept that way for Kyle Finnegan and Hunter Harvey in the eighth and ninth.
Finnegan made it through his inning clean. But Harvey, seeking his third save of the season, couldn’t close out the victory.
Facing the Padres’ 2-3-4 hitters, Harvey gave up back-to-back singles to Jake Cronenworth and Juan Soto (who finished the day 1-for-1 with four walks). Harvey was able to then strike out the next two batters, but then served up a three-run home run to Rougned Odor on a 99 mph fastball that ended up just inside the right field foul pole.
The end result: A heartbreaking 8-6 loss in front of 17,524 fans at Nationals Park, who were hoping to see the Nats complete a winning homestand.
“I threw a fastball, he hit a homer,” Harvey said of the at-bat against Odor. “He's geared and I gave him one. … Can't make mistakes in that situation. I did and he won.”
“Tough, tough game,” manager Davey Martinez said. “But we battled back. That says a lot about our ballclub. We battled back and we get the ball to Finnegan and Harvey at the end. I mean, that's what you want to do with the lead, right? It just didn't work out today. But I'm proud of the way the guys battled back.”
For much of this game, the Nats were in line for a loss. But a massive rally in the seventh put them in line to steal a win.
Down 5-1 and facing the Padres bullpen, the Nationals rattled off seven consecutive hits to put up the five spot in the seventh and take the decisive lead.
Facing left-hander Tim Hill and then right-hander Nick Martinez, Luis García, Joey Meneses, Jeimer Candelario, pinch-hitter Corey Dickerson, Dominic Smith, Alex Call and pinch-hitter Keibert Ruiz all collected RBI singles in the seventh, with the exception of Candelario, who hit an RBI double into the right field corner.
“That's what we're about,” Call said. “I know every guy is going to keep fighting. I think we put good at-bats together, we put the pressure on them. And we're all ready for our roles and when the time comes. And so taking advantage of some mistakes there and just rolling with it. So that's what you got to do. And like I said, you gotta make him beat us. We're gonna put the pressure on him and I think we did.”
“We just got to keep doing that,” Ruiz said. “We've been playing good in coming from behind. So that's great for us.”
They almost put up a sixth run when a Nick Martinez pitch got away from catcher Brett Sullivan and Call darted and dove headfirst for home. But Sullivan was able to pick up the ball and barely put the tag on the bottom of Call’s cleat, as confirmed by the replay official after a Nationals challenge, for the third out.
“It just happened so fast that he got me by the skin of his glove,” Call said. “It's too bad. I really thought I was safe. I went over there and I was like, if he got me, it's by a thread. Like the thread on my clothing and that ended up being what it was. So it's too bad that it ended up that way.”
Nevertheless it was a big inning that seemed not in the cards through the game’s first six frames.
The Nats were 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position and had stranded eight runners on base before the late rally.
Padres starter Blake Snell didn’t have his best stuff at times throughout his start. The Nats actually scored on the first chance they got. Lane Thomas started the bottom of the first by hitting a low line drive to third baseman Ha-Seong Kim, who couldn't complete the catch. But Jake Cronenworth thought he did and didn’t cover first base on the throw, so Thomas ended up at second and then third after a Snell wild pitch. Meneses drove him in two batters later with an RBI single up the middle.
Snell then found his groove, retiring 10 of the next 11 Nats batters between Meneses’ single and Smith’s double in the fourth.
“I think he just dug down deep,” Call said of Snell. “He's got good stuff. So when he throws it where he wants to, it's tough to hit. We did a good job battling and making it tough on him, but just today we couldn't quite get the one that get us over the top against him.”
And then Snell lost it, giving the Nats back-to-back bases-loaded opportunities in the fourth and fifth.
With two outs in the fourth, a Smith double and two straight walks loaded the bases for CJ Abrams, who grounded into a force out at third to end the frame. Then in the fifth, a walk, a single and a hit batter loaded the bases again, this time with just one out. But back-to-back strikeouts by starting left fielder Stone Garrett and Smith ended their second big opportunity to put more runs on the board.
“We hit the ball,” Davey Martinez said. “I don't know how many times I say this, but we get opportunities to come back and put teams away. We got bases loaded, we left a lot of guys on base against a good team, a good hitting team. You need to put some runs across the board. Can't leave 12 guys on base. That right there, for me, is the difference, right? I mean, just add on here, add on there and it's a different ballgame. But the seventh inning, I think our at-bats were good, they were crisp. Guys came off the bench, some big hits for us. So they did well to come back.”
Some clutch hits would eventually come. But at the same time, those missed opportunities would eventually hurt.
“That hurts a lot. Especially after two outs in that situation,” Ruiz said. “But like I said, we just got to keep playing hard, keep coming from behind when we are behind in those games and just keep playing. That's baseball. Sometimes it's gonna hit you in the face and you just got to keep your head up and keep going.”
And unlike in his last outing, the Nats were able to complete the comeback during a Jake Irvin start.
The rookie was looking to recapture the success he found over his first 2 ⅔ starts of his major league career.
He only gave up one run in 10 ⅔ innings over his first two starts against the Cubs and Giants. And he pitched four more scoreless innings to begin his third outing against the Mets, but eventually was charged with six runs in what was an eight-run fifth inning for New York.
Then he didn’t make it out of the third inning against the Tigers on Friday, charged with six runs (four earned) while throwing 75 pitches, only 38 for strikes, while the Nats’ rally from an 8-0 deficit came up short in an 8-6 loss.
So the plan this afternoon was to get back in the strike zone. Unfortunately, the young right-hander was unable to do so.
Irvin only completed four innings, the second-shortest outing of his young major league career. But the issue was more that he only threw 37 of his 76 pitches for strikes, less than 50 percent.
“For me, I have stopped trying to be so fine,” he said. “Make pitches, make guys prove it. Put the ball over the plate and let them do their thing.”
The 26-year-old struggled to locate throughout his outing. But to his credit, it could have been a lot worse.
With two outs in the second, he went inside with a 94 mph sinker to Kim, who fouled it off his right knee and went down writhing in pain, The third baseman needed to be helped off the field by the Padres training staff, leaving pinch-hitter Brandon Dixon to slap a single into left field. That set up Trent Grisham’s two-run homer on a 93 mph fastball on the outer third of the strike zone.
The location issues carried over into the third, when Irvin issued back-to-back walks before his throwing error on a pickoff attempt at second and his third straight free pass loaded the bases for Xander Bogaerts with no outs.
But Irvin was able to pull off a Houdini act to get out of the jam, getting Bogaerts to pop out on ball right down the middle of the plate and Matt Carpenter to ground into a 3-6-3 double play turned beautifully by Smith and CJ.
Irvin plucked Dixon in the fourth but was able to get out of the inning unscathed. He finished his four innings charged with two hits, two runs, four walks, four strikeouts with a homer and hit batter.
“Battled. Made a lot of good pitches early and some not so good ones late,” he said. “But just tried to keep the team in the ballgame. The play Dom made at first base was unbelievable. That really keeps us in the game there. But (four) walks is unacceptable. I have to be better than that.”
Andrés Machado took over in the top of the fifth and gave up three runs on three hits, a walk (the third of Juan Soto’s four-walk, one-hit day) and a balk to make a one-run game a 5-1 Padres lead.
Mason Thompson and Thaddeus Ward bridged the gap to the back end of the bullpen while the offense put together the rally.
While the Nats certainly have to feel the sting of this tough loss, like the rest of the season, good or bad, it’s another learning moment for a young team.
“Every moment is a learning moment,” Davey Martinez said. “It's a learning curve for us. But they're learning.”