Nats score early, clamp down late to sweep Reds (updated)

CINCINNATI – In order to sweep the Reds and win for the 11th time in their last 16 games overall, the Nationals merely needed to hit back-to-back homers on the first two pitches of the afternoon, then entrust an overworked, unproven, still-effective bullpen to hang on in one of baseball’s toughest pitchers’ parks.

When things are going your way, things are going your way. And they are most certainly going the Nats’ way right now.

Today’s 6-3 victory capped off an impressive weekend sweep at Great American Ball Park by an upstart visiting ballclub that made up for the sweep it suffered at the hands of the Reds last month in D.C. And it continued this club’s best sustained stretch in more than two years.

Owners of an 11-5 record since July 21, with sweeps of the Giants and Reds and a series win over the Brewers, the Nationals are giving themselves and their fans more reason to be optimistic than at any previous moment since the roster teardown and franchise rebuild began in July 2021. At 49-63 overall, they’re now on a 71-win pace that would represent a healthy 16-game improvement from last season’s 107-loss nadir.

"It's a long season. To do that consistently is hard," right fielder Lane Thomas told reporters afterward. "Otherwise, a lot of teams would do it. We've just got to keep doing what we're doing, and control what we can control. I think we do good things when we do that."

The Nats took it to Cincinnati all weekend and wasted no time doing it again today, getting back-to-back homers from CJ Abrams and Thomas on the game’s first two pitches, with Abrams finishing with four hits and Thomas driving in two more runs to pace a well-balanced offensive attack.

"They got us off to a great start," manager Davey Martinez said. "Two pitches, two runs. They stayed on the ball well. Those guys are the catalyst for us."

And though they got only 4 1/3 innings out of starter Jake Irvin, they somehow got 4 2/3 scoreless innings from a bullpen that included one new name and three familiar names who deserve overtime pay for their efforts this weekend.

Left-hander Robert Garcia, recently acquired off waivers from the Marlins, tossed two scoreless innings with a pair of strikeouts and a double play induced in his Nats debut. The rest was accomplished by Andrés Machado, Jordan Weems and Kyle Finnegan, each of them pitching for the third straight day, each of them posting zeroes to preserve their team’s third straight win.

"It felt like it was just another game, honestly," Garcia said. "I knew I had a good team behind me. It's been a fun couple of days being a part of this team. I trust them to go out and do my thing, and it was fun to see them trust me in that situation."

Thus did the Nationals sweep their second series in three weeks and sweep their first road series since August 2019, when a very different roster won three in a row at Wrigley Field in a weekend that made more than a few starts believe it was capable of winning the World Series.

"The team's playing really well together," Martinez said. "Doing the little things. Getting guys over. Getting guys in with two outs. Our pitching, I can't say enough about what they're doing. Our bullpen's coming in and locking the door. They're playing well right now."

The stakes weren’t as high today as they were four years ago, but the opening of this game was historic in its own right. Since the Elias Sports Bureau began tracking pitch counts in 1999, no one had ever surrendered homers on each of the first two pitches of his major league career. Neither Lyon Richardson nor the Reds were happy to make history today. Abrams, Thomas and the Nationals were thrilled to play their part in making it happen.

Facing a big right-hander who missed all of last season while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and then made only one start above Double-A before getting the call today, Abrams and Thomas decided their best strategy was an aggressive one. Look for a first-pitch fastball in the zone, then take a whack at it.

And that’s exactly what they did, Abrams blasting his 402 feet down the right field and well up the bleachers along the Ohio River, Thomas immediately following with a 406-foot shot to straightaway center for a 2-0 lead against a stunned rookie.

"Any time I'm leading off, I'm going to sit fastball," Abrams said. "I got one, middle-up, put a good swing on it."

"It was fun watching him crush that ball," Thomas said. "I thought it was going to go out of the stadium. And it was cool to put another good swing on it after that."

Their teammates didn’t let up. Joey Meneses drew a walk, Keibert Ruiz singled to left and Jake Alu drove both of them home with a base hit up the middle, the fourth straight game the rookie has recorded at least one RBI since returning from Triple-A Rochester.

Richardson would settle down after that, the Nationals scoring just one more run off him via Thomas’ two-out RBI double in the fourth. That could’ve been a much more productive inning if not for Alex Call getting thrown out on the back end of an attempted first-and-third, double-steal and Dominic Smith grounding out on a 2-0 pitch with the bases loaded following back-to-back walks.

Extra run support or not, Irvin still took the mound with a healthy amount of run support. The rookie responded with a quick, 10-pitch bottom of the first but then labored after that.

Unable to consistently get his curveball over the plate, Irvin was forced to throw more fastballs than he probably preferred. And he paid the price twice, serving up solo homers to Joey Votto in the second and TJ Friedl in the third. A Stuart Fairchild RBI single added another run – the Reds’ first of the series that came on anything other than a homer – and ultimately made this a 5-3 game as both managers turned to their bullpens.

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