The Nationals’ winning month of August was defined by success late in games, both at the plate by an opportunistic lineup and on the mound by a lockdown bullpen.
On the first night of September, they showed it might be tough to keep that going through the season's final month.
Despite rallying to tie the game in the bottom of the 10th, the Nationals couldn't overcome an ugly top of the 11th and wound up on the wrong end of an 8-5 loss to the Marlins, suddenly their fifth loss in six days.
Robert Garcia and Mason Thompson, the Nats' fifth and sixth relievers of the night, combined to allow those four decisive runs in the 11th, the first of those scoring in the form of the automatic runner, the others scoring in more conventional fashion.
Garcia, returning to the mound after a two-inning, 28-pitch appearance Thursday night, surrendered three straight singles to open the inning. Thompson then replaced him and immediately served up a two-run homer to Garrett Hampson to cap the rally and make it all the more difficult for the Nationals to bounce back again in the bottom of the inning.
"Honestly, I thought I made some pretty decent pitches, for the most part," Garcia said. "Unfortunately, that leadoff one to Jazz (Chisholm Jr.) started it. You've got to get him out. But it was a bloop hit. It is what it is."
They did get one run back via Carter Kieboom's RBI single to right. But they needed three more, couldn't get those and thus fell to 4-2 in extra innings this season.
Miami initially took the lead in the top of the 10th without the benefit of a hit off Kyle Finnegan, who returned to the mound after an eight-pitch top of the ninth. Finnegan did get himself into trouble when he tried to get the lead runner at third on a comebacker and threw too wide of the base. A heads-up play by Dominic Smith after a diving stop at first base created a rundown and got the lead runner, but the Marlins still managed to score right after that on Josh Bell's sharp grounder to short, with CJ Abrams only to make the throw to third for the second out as the go-ahead run scored.
No problem, because the Nationals answered in the bottom of the inning in rapid fashion. Lane Thomas ripped a single to center to lead off the inning, with Abrams (the automatic runner) racing around to score from second. The rally fizzled after that, though, so the game proceeded to the top of the 11th, at which point it all fell apart.
"Our defense, we made some nice plays today," manager Davey Martinez said. "Had some boys hit some home runs. We just couldn't get enough guys on base."
The Nationals went 17-11 in August, their first winning month since June 2021. They did so by winning a ton of close games, going 10-2 in one-run contests. The Marlins, meanwhile, have been baseball's best team in close games all season, entering tonight's an astounding 28-12 in one-run games. It only figured this one would go right down to the wire.
"I think everybody's getting a little taste of it, and it feels a lot better to be in those games and win than to be on the other end of it," Thomas said. "It's been fun to be on this team and fun watching these guys."
After an early offensive explosion by both teams, neither scored after the third inning. Both starters departed after five, leaving the game in the hands of the respective bullpens. Each kept posting zeros.
The Nationals got a scoreless inning a piece from Jose A. Ferrer, Jordan Weems, Hunter Harvey and Finnegan, Finnegan getting help from a heads-up defensive play. After a leadoff single in the ninth, Smith let Garrett Hampson’s popped-up bunt attempt fall, allowing him to pull off a 3-6 double play to quash that potential jam and set up his teammates to plate the winning run in the bottom of the ninth.
But when the Nats went down quietly, Finnegan was right back to the mound for the 10th, hoping to keep Miami from taking the lead in a game that saw excellent bullpen work after both starters lasted five innings.
Though he hasn’t compared to others at their best, Jake Irvin arguably has been the most consistent member of the Nationals rotation for months now. The rookie entered tonight’s outing with a 3.64 ERA over his last 13 outings, completing between 5-6 innings in 11 of those.
Irvin wasn’t particularly sharp tonight, walking three batters and throwing only 44 of his 80 pitches for strikes. But he got through the requisite five innings with the game tied, and he confined the Marlins offensive output to one RBI single in the first and two run-scoring outs in the third.
He retired the top of the order in the fifth on 12 pitches, and that felt like a good endpoint for Martinez, who thanked his starter for keeping the team in the game and entrusted the rest to his bullpen.
"Jake Irvin didn't have the best stuff," Martinez said. "But he kept us in the game."
The Nationals tied the game by mirroring Miami’s production in both the first and third innings. In this case, though, each of the runs scored via solo homer. Not exactly this team’s usual preferred method. They were able to make some solid contact against Eury Pérez, the Marlins’ electric 20-year-old, who allowed only four hits but served up three bombs and two more drives to the warning track.
Abrams got it started in the bottom of the first, leading off with a blast off an 0-2 curveball for his 15th homer of the season. He joins Ian Desmond, Trea Turner and Danny Espinosa as shortstops in club history to reach that mark.
Thomas continued the trend in the third, smacking a leadoff homer of his own, a long-awaited one at that. Thomas’ 21st homer of the season was his first since Aug. 8, perhaps portending a forthcoming power resurgence down the stretch.
The surprise of the bunch, though, was Travis Blankenhorn, the 27-year-old outfielder promoted from Triple-A today and thrust directly into the heart of the lineup as the Nats’ No. 5 hitter in his debut. After clubbing 23 homers in Rochester, Blankenhorn came to D.C. with some track record as a power hitter. And when he launched a high fastball from Perez to right-center for the game-tying homer in the third, he had announced his presence with authority.
"That was definitely an experience," he said. "Good crowd out there. Honestly, I kind of blacked out. I don't even remember that much."
What the rest of this month holds for Blankenhorn remains to be seen. But with that homer and a pair of walks tonight, he at least put himself in the conversation for a closer look by a Nationals club that has spent all summer trying to find a productive left fielder.
"He's swung the bat well all year long," Martinez said. "I think he's in a good place mentally. He's got some confidence coming in here right now. This guy we faced today (Pérez) is not easy: a young kid who throws the ball hard. But (Blankenhorn) got back early, stayed on the fastball and smoked it and then worked a walk as well. That's a good sign, when you can face a guy like that, get yourself ready early and hit the ball like he did ... it was good."