Nats try to rally but can't overcome Irvin's rough start (updated)

When Chad Kuhl landed on the 15-day injured list at the beginning of the month, the Nationals decided to promote Jake Irvin from Triple-A Rochester and see what they had in this 26-year-old right-hander.

After a solid, though flawed major league debut against the Cubs, there was enough reason to want to see more of Irvin. After an eye-opening, 6 1/3 innings of scoreless ball in San Francisco, there was reason to wonder if Irvin might really be legit. And though his third start ended with a nightmare fifth inning, Irvin performed well enough against the Mets up to that point to warrant another look.

So, now what?

Irvin’s fourth career start didn’t come close to producing the promising moments of his previous three. Rocked by the weak-hitting Tigers for six runs in only 2 2/3 innings, he dug the Nationals into a deep hole they nearly climbed all the way out of before falling 8-6 in the opener of a weekend interleague series.

"Tomorrow, we've got to come out ready to play," an unusually perturbed Davey Martinez said. "From the first pitch on."

The Nats’ fourth straight loss was shaping up to be their ugliest game in weeks, with Detroit taking an 8-0 lead in the sixth inning because of Irvin’s early struggles, solo homers allowed by relievers Hobie Harris and Thaddeus Ward, Luis García’s first error of the season at second base and a lifeless performance from the lineup against Detroit starter Matthew Boyd, who carried a no-hitter into the bottom of the sixth.

To their credit, the Nationals battled back to make things far more interesting than they had any right to be. They finally took down Boyd with three runs on four extra-base hits (headlined by Lane Thomas’ homer into the red seats in left-center) in the sixth, then plated three more runs (headlined by Keibert Ruiz’s homer into the right field bullpen) in the seventh off Tigers reliever Mason Englert, then brought the tying run to the plate before even making an out in the inning.

But the rally fizzled after that, and the Nats were left to stew over another narrow defeat. They've lost four in a row by a total of six runs.

"You can't count us out of any game," Thomas said. "What were they up, 8-0? And we came within a couple runs. I came up with a chance to drive in another run. That very easily could've been a 1-run lead and given us a better shot."

Irvin entered this outing on the heels of his first truly bad inning as a big leaguer. After cruising through his first four frames against the Mets on Saturday, he melted down in the fifth and wound up charged with six runs. With a chance to right his ship tonight against one of the weakest-hitting teams in the majors, the rookie right-hander only made things worse.

Zach McKinstry led off the game with an opposite-field blast into the left field bullpen, putting the Nats in a quick 1-0 hole. By the time the top of the first ended, Irvin had allowed three runs, giving up two hits, walking two, allowing an uncontested stolen base and committing a fielding error on a routine comebacker. He needed 36 pitches to get that far, setting an ominous tone for the rest of the night.

Irvin wasn’t helped by his defense, most notably García, whose attempt to turn what should’ve been an inning-ending, 6-4-3 double play in the third turned into the second baseman’s first error of the season. 

"He could've got out of that inning with just one run, but the ball back to him, he couldn't make the play," Martinez said. "And then the double play ball, that cost him another three runs. That's the difference in the ballgame. I preach it all the time: We've got to play defense. Every day. I talk about it all the time. Hitting comes and goes. We've got to catch the baseball. Can't make those errors. And it was costly today."

Irvin did have a chance to get out of the inning on his own, but he responded to the García error by walking the next batter and then serving up a three-run homer to Akil Baddoo to make it 6-0.

"Yeah, he goes walk-homer, but I think (the error), he's young and he felt it a little bit," Martinez said. "He comes back out there and battles. He didn't throw his curveball for strikes today, but he battled. But he would've been out of the third inning with just eight pitches if we make the play."

Irvin took full responsibility himself for that inning, no matter what happened in the field behind him. 

"It's up to me to make good pitches, and I didn't," the rookie said. "Simple as that."

Another walk, a wild pitch and an infield single after the Baddoo homer, Martinez was making the way to the mound to take the ball from his starter. Irvin departed having allowed six runs (four earned) in only 2 2/3 innings. He faced 18 batters and retired only eight of them. It required 75 pitches, only 38 of them strikes.

"The boys have been working really hard, and coming off a series sweep, all I wanted to do today was put something strong together, get deep in the ballgame and give us some momentum for this series," Irvin said. "So it's really disappointing."

So, now what? Kuhl, who threw 65 pitches over four innings in a simulated game earlier this week, could be close to returning from his foot injury. Martinez was non-committal this afternoon about the plan for the veteran right-hander, who had a 9.41 ERA through his five starts before landing on the IL.

The club could decide Irvin would be best served getting more experience at Triple-A, where his workload could be more closely monitored. Or perhaps he’d still be better off getting his experience here in the majors, even if it includes more blowups like this.

"The biggest thing is learning from your mistakes, but also being able to learn in-game and make adjustments quickly," Irvin said. "I definitely have to be better at that."

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