Facing a one-run deficit in this afternoon’s doubleheader opener, Davey Martinez opted not to use his best relievers, saving them for what he hoped would be a winnable game in the nightcap.
In order for that to happen, though, the Nationals were going to need to get a quality pitching performance from starter Chad Kuhl, not to mention some production from a lineup that failed to capitalize on a host of opportunities earlier in the day.
So when neither of those outcomes materialized, Martinez’s best-laid plans went down the drain. Kyle Finnegan and Mason Thompson could only watch from the bullpen as the Nats slogged their way through a 16-1 trouncing at the hands of the Pirates, by far their most lopsided loss of the season.
A homestand that began with the promise of better baseball following an impressive 4-2 road trip to Minnesota and New York instead has opened with a Friday night rainout, then a doubleheader sweep that leaves the Nationals trying to salvage one game in Sunday’s finale, which could be significantly delayed due to another round of rain.
Not exactly the kind of weekend everyone around here had in mind.
"The whole thing was tough," Martinez said. "Today was just not a good day. The first game: Walks. The second game: Fell behind, walks and the game got out of hand."
The Nationals proved no match for the shockingly dominant Pirates, who have now won 11 of their last 12 to storm out to a National League-best 20-8 record. Their latest in this stretch came through the ineffectiveness of a former teammate.
Kuhl took the mound tonight to cap off an emotional weekend, one that began Friday morning in a hospital room where he accompanied his wife, Amanda, for her first round of chemotherapy for a recently diagnosed case of breast cancer. Kuhl will be the first to insist Amanda’s battle has no bearing on his pitching performance, good or bad, but it was hard not to wonder what might have been on his mind as he tried to focus on his job tonight.
"I've been really fortunate to have a crazy amount of support, and can kind of put that in my rearview," the right-hander said. "Especially what my wife is going through, how she's handling it, I feel like she's done an unbelievable job of doing what she needs to do and taking care of what she needs to take care of, so I can go and do this."
Kuhl, who spent five seasons with the Pirates and then one with the Rockies before joining the Nationals on a minor league deal this spring, entered with a 7.36 ERA as the team’s replacement for injured prospect Cade Cavalli. He departed with a 9.41 ERA, charged with eight earned runs on seven hits and four walks while throwing 100 pitches in only 3 2/3 innings.
Kuhl put himself in jams the entire night, putting the Pirates’ leadoff man on base in each of his first three innings. He surrendered a run in the first, another in the second and two in the third, which ended with the Nationals trailing 4-0 but needing to leave their struggling starter out there as long as he could make it.
That’s because Martinez used five relievers in this afternoon’s 6-3 loss, including regular multi-inning options Erasmo Ramirez, Thaddeus Ward and Jordan Weems.
So, Kuhl was back on the mound for the top of the fourth, and though he struck out Rodolfo Castro to open the frame, he proceeded to go walk, hit-by-pitch, walk, RBI single, sacrifice fly, RBI single before Martinez mercifully made the long walk from the dugout to take the ball from his beleaguered starter in favor of Weems, making his second appearance of the day as the designated 27th man promoted from Triple-A Rochester for the doubleheader.
"That's what you feel worst about: I wish that I was more efficient," Kuhl said. "I wish that I could've gone seven (innings) in any capacity and helped these guys out. They've been great. It just didn't work out."
Weems turned in 1 1/3 scoreless innings before giving way to Hobie Harris, who was blasted for five runs (four of them scoring on Jack Suwinski’s grand slam) in two innings that required 51 pitches. Hunter Harvey, whom Martinez hoped all along would be able to pitch a high-leverage inning with a lead, instead tossed a 1-2-3 top of the eighth with his team trailing by 13 runs.
"I will say this: Hobie, he wore it for his teammates and for his team today," Martinez said. "That was pretty awesome. But having to use Harvey in a game like this was not fun. We've got to put today behind us and come back tomorrow and play good baseball."
By the time all of that happened, this game had seen a pair of notable events:
Jeter Downs finally made his Nationals debut, 18 days after he was called up from Triple-A to replace an injured Ildemaro Vargas. The young infielder struck out and drew a walk in his two plate appearances.
Drew Maggi finally recorded his first major league hit and RBI for the Pirates. The 33-year-old rookie, who made his debut this week after 13 years in the minors, received a loud ovation from the announced crowd of 17,482 after lacing a single to center off Harris in the top of the seventh.
By night’s end, there were two more notable firsts: Dominic Smith hit his first homer of the season, and Lane Thomas made his pitching debut, surrendering a three-run homer to Miguel Andujar in the top of the ninth as the Nats’ first position player to take the mound this season.
"I've seen guys do it. It's definitely fun," said Thomas, who topped out at 89 mph in his first pitching appearance since high school. "It sucks that we're in that situation, but make the best of it and maybe save a guy from having to go and throw an inning that doesn't mean as much as a lot of the other ones."