The Nationals out-hit the Rays all night long, entering the top of the ninth tonight with more than three times as many base hits as their opponents. So why was there a sense of unease as Kyle Finnegan took the mound trying to close out a victory?
Because the Nats didn't make the most of their hits. Yes, they totaled 16 of them, but 13 were singles and the other three were doubles.
The Rays, on the other hand, most definitely made the most of their hits in this game. That's because seven of their 10 went for extra bases, four of those clearing the fence.
And when Luke Raley, Josh Lowe and Yandy Díaz all took Finnegan deep in a disastrous ninth, what should have been an uplifting Nationals victory instead flipped to their most agonizing loss of the young season, a 10-6 defeat that left the home team and a crowd of 15,272 stunned.
"We did what we needed to do to win, and I came up short tonight," Finnegan said. "That's what hurts the most. You want to win the game. I've got to be better."
Entrusted with a one-run lead for the ninth, Finnegan didn't even let things devolve in slow motion. Raley drove his very first pitch, a 95-mph fastball, to left field for the game-tying homer. Lowe then waited for the third pitch of his at-bat, a splitter over the plate, to launch the go-ahead homer into the second deck in right-center.
As rookie Hobie Harris warmed in the bullpen, manager Davey Martinez left his closer on the mound to try to pitch his way out of the mess. Unfortunately, as proved to be the case more than a few times last season, Finnegan wasn't able to right a wayward ship. Instead, he kept taking on more water until he sank.
"I'm not going to pull him. He's our closer," Martinez said. "We've got to get him right, right? I was going to give him 25 pitches to try to get out of it. They were just on everything."
Finnegan wound up not retiring any of the six batters he faced, the lone out he recorded coming on a pickoff. And when Díaz blasted his 24th and final pitch of the evening (a hanging slider) to left-center for a three-run homer, the boo birds came out in full force as Finnegan trudged off the mound having surrendered eight runs (seven earned) in 2 1/3 innings to begin the season.
"They were on everything I threw tonight," he said. "I tried my best to get it by them and just couldn't do it."
The late implosion spoiled the best offensive night of 2023 for the Nationals lineup. Lane Thomas (three hits, three RBIs) and Alex Call (three hits, one walk, two RBIs) led the way, but production came from just about everyone in the lineup. The Nats finished with 13 singles and three doubles, the last of them a pinch-hit rope into the right field corner by Luis García to bring Call all the way home from first and seemingly provide some cushion for a bullpen that actually needed a lot more of one.
"We just take good at-bats, pass the baton onto the next guy," Call said. "Everybody's got their own plan and their own approach. I felt like our at-bats have been pretty good. We've just got to stay with the process and trust that it's all going to work out."
Through no fault of his own, Chad Kuhl took the mound tonight much to the disappointment of Nationals fans, not to mention more than a few Nationals employees who were hoping to see Cade Cavalli make his season debut. Alas, the organization’s top pitching prospect had Tommy John surgery two weeks ago and won’t be back until sometime in 2024, leaving Kuhl to take his place for as long as he deserves to keep it.
Three batters into this game, the 30-year-old looked like he might not be long for the job. Two singles and a double left Kuhl and the Nats down 1-0 only five pitches in, and a couple of productive outs followed to make it 3-0.
Kuhl, though, quickly settled in and found his groove. He would retire 15 of the final 17 batters he faced, the only member of the Rays lineup to reach against him after the top of the first being No. 9 hitter Jose Siri, who homered in the second and walked in the fifth.
Kuhl’s final line (four runs, four hits, one walk, four strikeouts in five innings) won’t turn any heads. But considering the disastrous path it was heading down, his start was ultimately satisfactory for the Nationals, who helped the cause by making up those four runs and then adding another.
"It really just came down to poor pitch selection by me, and poor pitch execution by me," Kuhl said of his first inning. "After that, in the middle of the first, we kind of got things dialed in.
Having been shut down by the likes of Spencer Strider and Drew Rasmussen earlier in the homestand, the lineup took its hacks against Rays No. 5 starter Josh Fleming tonight and looked much more comfortable in the process. They immediately got two runs back in the bottom of the first on Call’s two-out, two-run single to left, then tied the game 4-4 in the bottom of the second on back-to-back doubles by CJ Abrams and Thomas.
"I think we've faced two of the better pitching staffs in baseball," Thomas said. "I know these guys have a history of having good starters and good relievers, and that's why they're a really good team. Doing a lot of little things right like that gets those guys' pitch counts up, and maybe out of the game a little earlier."
Thomas’ RBI single to center in the fourth gave the Nats their first lead and knocked Fleming from the game. But it underscored just how much effort it takes for this team to score runs. In this case it required three straight singles.
The Nationals clearly out-hit the Rays all night. By the end of the eighth, they had 16 base hits to Tampa Bay’s five. Yet they only led by one run, because 13 of those hits were singles and none of them were homers. They were 3-for-16 with runners in scoring position.
"We left a couple runners on third base with less than two outs," Martinez said. "Those are the runs, to me, we needed to capitalize on. We've got to move the baseball. We've got to drive those runs in.
The Rays, who only had two at-bats with runners in scoring position through the sixth, still had four runs on the board, thanks to a pair of run-scoring outs and a solo homer. The difference in offensive production from the home team was right there on display.
And wouldn't you know, that proved important at night's end.
"We did a lot of things well," Call said. "But baseball happens. You hate it. It hurts. But you move on, and you look at the positives. Look at all the hits we had. We made plays. We ran the bases hard. ... There were a lot of positives. You move forward. There's 162. We lost one, but that means we'll get one of those back."