MILWAUKEE – The way they jumped all over Wade Miley in the top of the first suggested this might be a good night for the Nationals’ recently slumping hitters.
And the way Jake Irvin kept posting zeros against the first-place Brewers suggested the rookie was headed for another fine night on the mound.
How, then, did all of that turn into a 5-3 loss at American Family Field?
It happened because the Nats lineup did virtually nothing at the plate after that impressive opening statement. And it happened because Irvin’s pitch count and inability to avoid giving Milwaukee free baserunners came back to haunt him during a killer sequence in the bottom of the fifth that flipped the entire game.
That four-run outburst by the Brewers did in Irvin, spoiling what was shaping up to be a big-time outing by the young right-hander. And because his teammates couldn’t do anything to support him or the relievers who followed to make up the slim deficit, the Nationals were left to suffer yet another loss during a September to forget.
On the heels of an impressive August that included 17 wins during a stretch of 24 games, the Nats have now lost 13 of their last 17. They remain stuck on 65 wins, and with only 14 left to play, the idea of a 70-win season is no longer the lock it appeared to be a few short weeks ago.
"We're in a lot of games, like we were before," right fielder Lane Thomas said. "I think some of those just as easily could've been in our favor. You've just got to be consistent, which I think we have been. We've just got to get back to those situations when it's the deciding factor late in games. We've got to pull through on both sides of the ball."
Making tonight's loss all the more frustrating was the manner in which they took an early lead.
The Nationals managed all of two hits (both singles) during Thursday’s shutout loss to the Pirates. So of course they totaled three runs on four hits (all for extra bases) in the top of the first tonight against one member of the National League’s top pitching staff.
Hey, nobody said this stuff has to make any sense.
The Nats jumped all over Miley to take a quick, 3-0 lead that left the veteran left-hander and the home crowd stunned. Thomas got it started with a towering blast that hooked around the left field foul pole for his 25th homer of the season. Joey Meneses, Carter Kieboom and Ildemaro Vargas followed with doubles, the latter two plating two more runs and perhaps bringing some renewed confidence to the previously struggling Kieboom and Vargas.
The big opening frame was much welcomed by a Nationals lineup that needed something like that, but the string of scoreless innings that followed made it all the more frustrating. Miley allowed only one other batter to reach base until the top of the sixth, and only then allowed his first hit since Vargas’ RBI double so much earlier.
"A lot of changeups. A lot of off-speeds. A lot of ground balls," Kieboom said. "He's around the zone a lot, and he's one of those guys where it's a fine line of being patient or being aggressive. We did all right. And I think if we saw him again, we'd do pretty well."
Despite the lack of sustained offense, the Nats did look like they had a chance to make those three earlier runs hold up because of Irvin’s pitching performance.
The rookie had a large cheering section of friends and family who made the drive down from Bloomington, Minn., behind the third base dugout. And they had plenty to cheer about through the first three innings, during which time Irvin allowed one hit (erased by a double play) and one walk.
In spite of his success, though, Irvin was not throwing strikes or recording quick outs. And that began to show up in his results during a long fourth inning that included a pair of walks (though still no runs).
By the fifth inning, it all finally caught up to him. A leadoff walk set the tone, and though Irvin followed that up with back-to-back strikeouts, another walk put him in a jam as his pitch count approached triple digits. Out came Jim Hickey for a mound conference, but as soon as the pitching coach returned to the dugout, Irvin grooved a first-pitch fastball to William Contreras, who destroyed it.
The crowd of 35,428 erupted before the ball even cleared the fence in left-center, knowing there was no doubt it would do so. It wound up landing 453 feet from the plate for a three-run homer that tied the game and spoiled Irvin’s once-dominant start.
"Walks and home runs. That's what got him in trouble," manager Davey Martinez said. "He competed, got out of some jams early. We were hoping to get him through the fifth inning. It's just that the walks got him."
If Contreras' tape-measure shot wasn’t bad enough, Carlos Santana followed with a homer of his own, driving a 3-2 sinker from Irvin to right to give the Brewers a 4-3 lead and knock the Nats starter from the game with his pitch count a whopping 102 despite completing only 4 2/3 innings.
"It stinks, man," Irvin said. "The offense did what they have been doing all year. They put up three runs early, and it's my job to secure that for us and get us deep into that ballgame. And I didn't do that today. It's very frustrating."