Nats top Tigers for first five-game winning streak since 2021 (updated)

DETROIT – There are many ways to measure progress in a franchise’s efforts to rebuild itself back into the kind of consistent contender it was years ago. But ultimately, it does come down to wins and losses, right? And, ideally, the ability to string together a bunch of wins over a sustained period of time.

The Nationals haven’t done much of that in the last three years. They’ve had their moments, sure, but rarely have those moments come in succession.

So consider the events of the last week, capped off by tonight’s 7-5 victory over the Tigers, significant in both the little picture and the big picture. In the little picture, the Nats have won five in a row, inching themselves ever closer to the .500 mark. In the big picture, they’ve won five in a row for the first time since June 19-24, 2021, the last time they were truly competitive and prioritizing short-term success over long-term plans.

"Good things will happen when you keep good vibes and play together and have fun," said shortstop CJ Abrams, who arrived in August 2022. "It's starting to show."

Win No. 5 should have come easier than it did. The Nationals put 15 runners on base through their first eight offensive innings, yet only five of them crossed the plate. There were countless opportunities to add more, but they were done in by poor situational hitting (2-for-11 with runners in scoring position) and poor baserunning (three outs made).

Even so, they led 5-1 in the bottom of the eighth thanks to another strong start from Jake Irvin, who allowed just one run over six innings. Then the usually reliable bullpen took over and let the Tigers make a game of it.

Robert Garcia and Dylan Floro combined to allow three runs on four straight hits to open the eighth. That forced Davey Martinez to summon Hunter Harvey, one night after a 32-pitch, multi-inning appearance. Harvey delivered in superb fashion, retiring three batters on 16 pitches and stranding the tying runner in scoring position.

"I feel like any time you get to the back end of the game and it's not a huge lead, you kind of get into the mindset," Harvey said. "Tonight happened really quick, so there wasn't time to think about anything. It was just grab the ball and let's go. Adrenaline kind of took over."

Two big insurance runs off the bats of Luis García Jr. and Joey Meneses extended the lead in the top of the ninth and provided some cushion for Kyle Finnegan to secure his 19th save in 21 attempts – he did surrender a solo homer to Riley Greene – and ensure the win for his young starter.

"I can't say enough about Harvey again, and Finnegan. We tried to stay away from them," manager Davey Martinez said. "We had to use them again today. So, who knows what's going to happen tomorrow? But we come out with a victory."

Irvin entered this start flying high, having produced a 1.48 ERA, 0.863 WHIP and 26 strikeouts in 24 1/3 innings over his last four outings. And then four batters into this one, the right-hander looked befuddled, the Tigers seemingly on top of every pitch he threw. Matt Vierling opened the night blasting a 3-2 curveball to left for a leadoff homer. Riley Greene lined out to left. Wenceel Pérez and Mark Canha each ripped line drive singles.

And then Irvin settled down and found a way to cruise through the rest of his evening. He retired seven in a row following the early onslaught, three of those via strikeout. He scattered a pair of harmless singles in the third and fourth, then stranded a pair on base in the fifth. And when he retired the side in the sixth, he walked off the mound having thrown six innings of one-run ball on 98 pitches, lowering his ERA to an even 3.00 in the process.

"That's kind of been the goal here: To get back into rhythm quicker," Irvin said, citing the club's coaching, training and mental skills staff. "They've helped me do a lot of different stuff that's adjusted my focus to get back into the count, or back into an at-bat, in one pitch, rather than in three or four pitches. It's been really cool to see. Props to those guys."

In spite of his consistently effective pitching, Irvin came into the day with a pedestrian 4-5 record, the product of poor run support throughout much of the season. The Nationals totaled two or fewer runs in nine of his first 13 starts. That wasn’t a problem tonight.

Abrams got things going in the top of the third, launching a curveball from Tigers starter Reese Olson to right-center for his 11th homer of the year. And he was just getting warmed up.

Two innings later, Abrams followed Jacob Young’s leadoff double with an RBI double of his own. At that moment, six of his last seven hits went for extra bases, a much-appreciated return of power to the shortstop’s swing that had disappeared during his recent slump.

"I'm back swinging at my pitch," he said. "I'm kind of shrinking the zone. I've been swinging at strikes more often, and it kind of shows, for sure."

An RBI single by Jesse Winker plated another run in the fifth, and the latest in a string of Detroit defensive miscues ultimately allowed Winker to score from third on a double-steal attempt to complete the three-run rally and extend the lead to 5-1.

On that particular play, García was credited with the Nationals’ 100th steal of the season. They’re the first team to reach triple digits in 67 games or less since the 2009 Rays. And the three teams who did it prior to that all did so during the 1990s.

Not that the Nats were perfect on the bases. They ran into three outs on the bases through the game’s first six innings, denying themselves the opportunity to open up a big lead.

"We've got to stop giving away outs," Martinez said. "We've got to be a little more conscious of driving in those runs. We could've blown this game wide open, and we just couldn't get it done."

No matter, they still finished this one off to clinch their first five-game winning streak since 2021. Next up: A chance at a sweep Thursday afternoon and a six-game winning streak.

The last time they did that? The final week of the 2019 regular season, the precursor to something even more special.

"This year, it's just been fun," said Harvey, who joined the Nationals during their 107-loss 2022 season. "The guys we've got, we just have a good time. Every day is just fun to come to the field, and I feel like that's half the battle."

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