Nats drop pitchers' duel despite career night from Irvin (updated)

ATLANTA – Eight-run outbursts are all well and good. But sometimes you have to win the low-scoring, close games, too.

As much as the Nationals would have liked to replicate their offensive production from Monday’s win, tonight they ran into a pitchers’ duel between their own Jake Irvin and the Braves’ Max Fried.

But despite Irvin’s best efforts, including a career-high 10 strikeouts, the Nationals dropped this game 2-0 after some subpar pitching by the bullpen in the late innings.

After Irvin had completed six scoreless frames on 90 pitches, manager Davey Martinez decided to end his 27-year-old starter’s night and bring in Jacob Barnes to face the heart of the Braves order.

That decision proved costly, as Marcell Ozuna hit his National League-leading 16th homer of the season to break a scoreless tie in the seventh. Barnes left a 92.2 mph cutter right over the plate for Ozuna to hit 413 feet to left-center field and 106.7 mph off the bat.

“Just missed a spot, obviously," Barnes said after the game. "I've faced him plenty of times before and I just didn't execute on that one, unfortunately. Timing of it was pretty bad.”

Coming into tonight, Ozuna was 1-for-10 with four strikeouts against Barnes. He finally got him for a big one.

“Just anywhere down or away with him," Barnes said when asked where he was trying to locate that cutter. "Like I said, I've faced him plenty before and I've had a lot of success against him. So just unfortunately, I left it middle and up. And so he did what he's supposed to do on that and I just didn't execute.”

Barnes would then surrender two more hits to set up Jarred Kelenic’s sacrifice fly to put the Nats in a 2-0 hole by inning’s end. He entered the night with a 2.93 ERA. But after a seven-game stretch of not allowing a run earlier this month, he has now allowed two runs in three of his last four appearances, raising his ERA to 3.86.

“I like Jacob Barnes there," Martinez said. "He just didn't locate that pitch to Ozuna. Other than that, he had him at two strikes."

It was an unfortunate series of events after Irvin got his job done tonight mainly with two pitches. He threw his four-seam fastball 41 percent of the time and his curveball 39 percent, getting five whiffs on the heater and six on the breaking ball. Of his 10 strikeouts, four came on the fastball and five on the curveball.

"Just a good, steady mix," Irvin said. "Throwing the four-seamer in the zone, at the top of the zone. That was kind of a focus for us this week. Executed pretty well and that leads to good things.”

The young right-hander only allowed four baserunners to reach: Two were stranded, one was erased with a double play and the first was Ozzie Albies, who singled to right and was thrown out by Lane Thomas while trying to stretch it into a double.

It was Thomas’ third outfield assist of the season. Along with his 18 from last year, his 21 outfield assists since the start of the 2023 season are the most in the major leagues.

Irvin finished his career night after six shutout innings, two hits, two walks and 10 strikeouts on 90 pitches, 58 strikes. He lowered his ERA from 3.79 to 3.43.

"There's a ton of things that go into it," he said. "Just kind of what's working well and scouting reports on those guys, and then just how my stuff's playing. So a good mix and tried to keep them off balance.”

“Outstanding. The kid was good. Really good," Martinez said. "Ten strikeouts against that team, that's pretty impressive. He threw the ball really well. After the sixth inning, 90 pitches, we had a conversation with him. That last pitch he let it all out. Great job by him. Jake pitched really well.”

But once again, he was a victim of a lack of run support from his offense.

The Nats had chances to score on Fried earlier in the contest. CJ Abrams started the night with a leadoff double to right. But he was doubled up when Lane Thomas’ blooper didn’t have enough velocity to get over Ozzie Albies head and the Nats shortstop moved too far down the line toward third.

"I thought it was hit a little harder," Abrams said. "I thought it was gonna go over his head. I wanted to score, but I gotta be more disciplined right there.”

Jesse Winker led off the fifth with an opposite-field single. But Fried quickly picked him off at first for the Nats’ second baserunning blunder of the game.

“Two mistakes," said Martinez, "and when you got a guy like that, those mistakes can't happen.”

The Nats got their leadoff hitter on base in five innings. They also hit into four double plays, erasing scoring chances against the veteran southpaw.

“He's a good pitcher," Abrams said. "His fastball was working. It kind of runs away from us. Just trying to get a pitch to hit and we didn't get any runs. On to tomorrow.”

Their last chance against Fried came in the eighth inning, when Winker led off with a seven-pitch walk and stole second base. But the left-hander retired the next three batters without a ball leaving the infield to end his night after eight shutout innings, 103 pitches and a nice ovation from the crowd of 37,598.

“You gotta look at the other side," Martinez said. "They have Fried, right? He pitched really well. We got some traffic. He got out of jams with the double plays. We hit into four double plays. He pitched well, too. We just couldn't get anything going.”

Of Irvin's 11 starts, the Nationals have now scored three or fewer runs in nine of them. A brutal ending to an otherwise memorable night by the Nats’ young starter.

“Irvin: 10-out-of-10 performance," Abrams said. "He did a great job. We didn't score any runs for him, but good job.”

“He obviously pitched really well," Barnes said. "Being able to go six scoreless against them is always a good feat. As a reliever, you want to, obviously, continue that and, unfortunately, I wasn't able to today.”

“I'm doing my job trying to keep us in the game. And that's my focus," Irvin said. "At the end of the day, if I give us a chance to win, that's my job and we go from there.”

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