Nats pitching staff falters in nightcap loss (updated)

ST. LOUIS – Under the circumstances, Davey Martinez had to do what he had to do earlier in the day. His Nationals had a chance to win the completion of Friday night’s suspended game, so he used all of his top relievers to make sure his team did ultimately prevail in extra innings over the Cardinals.

The danger in going for it this afternoon, of course, was leaving the bullpen without those top arms tonight. And the Nats paid the price for it.

A trio of secondary relievers gave up four runs in the span of two innings, turning a tie game into a 9-6 loss to cap a long day of baseball in downtown St. Louis that featured yet another rain delay.

After Jake Irvin lasted only three innings in a laborious start, Martinez turned to rookies Amos Willingham and Jose A. Ferrer, then veteran Paolo Espino to keep the game within reach. They couldn’t do it, with Willingham and Ferrer combining to allow three runs in the fifth and then Espino allowing one in the sixth and then another tack-on run in the eighth.

The Nationals wound up splitting the doubleheader and will need to win Sunday’s finale to emerge with their fifth series win in their last six tries. Tonight’s loss prevented them from pulling off their first four-game winning streak since June 27-30, 2021.

"We hung in there for a little bit," Martinez said. "They just came back and scored some runs against us."

It’s a lot to ask a rookie to provide both length and quality in the back end of a doubleheader after the bullpen had to cover 7 1/3 innings in the opener. And it proved to be a lot to ask of Irvin, who provided neither in his start tonight, which was delayed 1 hour, 5 minutes by another thunderstorm (the fourth to delay the Nationals in their last six games).

The young right-hander entered with a 3.25 ERA over his last five outings, but he was in trouble from the get-go tonight. He didn’t allow a run in the first, but it took 27 pitches just to get those first three outs, and that set an ominous tone for the evening.

"A lack of execution led to some of those situations where guys got deeper into counts," he said.

Irvin couldn’t escape the second inning unscathed. He surrendered four runs, one of them coming on Alec Burleson’s leadoff homer, two of them coming on Brendan Donovan’s triple into the right field corner that caromed past a stumbling Lane Thomas, the final one coming on Paul Goldschmidt’s single to center.

Irvin, who appeared to be battling heavy sweat on a muggy Midwest night, did make it through the third without suffering any more damage. But with his pitch count already a sky-high 79, Martinez decided not to press his luck any further and hope his bullpen could piece together the rest of the game.

"You've got to not think about it, but at the end of the day I'm trying to go as deep as possible and save our 'pen," Irvin said. "I know they've been grinding. Obviously, we're coming off the All-Star break. But still, you've got save those arms as much as you can. And I really wish I could've gone deeper in the game today."

In spite of all that, Irvin wasn’t on the hook for the loss, because his teammates managed to claw their way back from a 4-0 deficit to tie the game in the fifth, starting with a pair of homers in the third.

Alex Call got it going with a blast into the bullpen, his third homer in seven games since he was called back up from Triple-A Rochester. Two batters later, CJ Abrams launched his eighth homer of the season and improved to 9-for-19 since taking over the leadoff spot in the lineup last weekend.

"I know I'm not a crazy home run hitter or going to hit for super power, but I think throughout my career I've been able to consistently hit gap to gap," Call said. "And that's kind of what you have to do in order to help the team win and be a productive offensive player."

The Nats got another run back in the fourth on a two-out RBI single by Riley Adams, then tied the game one inning later on Joey Meneses’ sacrifice fly to left (a blast that was inches shy of a three-run homer but ultimately wound up in the glove of a leaping Burleson to draw a roar from the St. Louis crowd).

Now, though, came the real challenge for the Nationals. They climbed their way back into the game, but now what remained of their bullpen needed to keep the game close the rest of the way. That, too, proved too difficult a challenge.

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