Nats wilt late at Coors, lose on pitch clock violation by Finnegan (updated)

DENVER – The Nationals and Rockies engaged in a good, old-fashioned Coors Field Saturday Night Special. The kind of night when anything can and will happen, and whatever happened in the first six innings doesn’t mean diddly squat because there’s still too much time for too much else to happen the rest of the way.

This game had five home runs. It had four runners caught stealing. It had multiple substitutions, either for injury or strategy. It had an ejection over one of countless erratic calls by plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt. And it ultimately had the Nats’ top two relievers desperately try to replicate what they’ve done with ease everywhere else in Coors Field, the toughest pitcher’s park in America.

And then it ended in the most unimaginable manner possible: a pitch clock violation by Kyle Finnegan with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, handing the Rockies an 8-7 victory in historic fashion.

It was the first major league game to end on such a violation since baseball adopted the rule last year.

"It sucks," Finnegan said. "We played a great game and deserved to win, and I wasn't able to do my job."

Up two runs late, the Nationals watched Hunter Harvey give up a solo homer in the eighth, then Finnegan give up the tying and winning runs in the ninth. It was the first time this season both right-handers had been scored upon in the same game, and it was Finnegan's first blown save since May 18, only his third blown save in 24 tries this season. 

"That's Coors Field, right?" manager Davey Martinez said. "That's what happens here. Look, I'm proud of the guys. We were down, they battled back, we took the lead. I'll put those guys in every time when we've got the lead like that. Just come back and get them tomorrow."

The Nationals had taken a 7-5 lead thanks to Luis García Jr.'s two-run homer in the seventh. One night after his three-run homer helped lead the way, the Nats second baseman put together an outstanding at-bat before hammering Justin Lawrence’s seventh pitch 434 feet to center field to give his team the lead.

The Nationals still needed six more outs, though, and in this ballpark that’s anything but a sure thing. Harvey gave up a leadoff, opposite-field homer to Ryan McMahon in the eighth, trimming the lead back to one run. He would walk two more batters in the inning but was bailed out when Drew Millas threw out Sam Hilliard trying to steal second for a critical out.

Finnegan then tried to protect a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth and wound up failing to retire any of the five batters he faced. He gave up four straight singles, then with the bases loaded faced a full count against McMahon. Before he could unleash the game-deciding pitch, Wendelstedt began waving his arms furiously, calling the closer for a pitch clock violation to end the game in stunning fashion.

"At first, I didn't really know what he called, because I thought I was right on time," Finnegan said. "I wasn't, so it kind of dawned on me I was too late. Just immediately felt awful about letting the team down in that big spot there. To lose the game in that way, it just can't happen."
This may have been the first game-ending clock violation, but it was Finnegan's league-leading ninth violation this season, a recurring problem that hadn't previously cost him but came back to bite him big-time tonight.

"I'm not going to change everything," he said. "Obviously it's been a thing for me, but it's something that I use, and I've just got to be better about it. I like to use the clock to my advantage, but I've just got to make sure there's still one tick left. I didn't do that tonight, and I paid for it."

Offense didn't come nearly as easily to the Nationals tonight as it did in Friday's 11-run, 19-hit bonanza. They were facing a better Colorado starter in Cal Quantrill, who entered with an impressive 3.43 ERA and lived up to the billing with six innings of three-run ball.

The Nats got to Quantrill for a couple runs in the third, thanks to CJ Abrams’ hustle double, Lane Thomas’ RBI single and Eddie Rosario’s hit-and-run RBI single. Abrams continued his torrid night two innings later with a solo shot to right for his 12th homer of the season. And when Abrams delivered an RBI single in the seventh to tie the game, he found himself a triple shy of the cycle, having also extended his hitting streak to 13 games.

"I'm hitting my pitch," he said of his recent success. "I'm being more selective at the plate, more patient. I've got to keep doing that, and we'll be alright."

When Thomas followed Abrams’ run-scoring single with one of his own, the Nationals had themselves a 5-4 lead, and Thomas had himself his sixth RBI in the first two games of this series.

For all the success they had at the plate, though, the Nats continued to shoot themselves in the foot on the bases. They attempted four stolen bases in the game and were thrown out three times, with Abrams, Thomas and Jacob Young all getting caught.

It would be one thing if this was an anomaly, but anyone who watches this team on a regular basis knows it’s not. After bursting out of the gates this season with a league-leading 77 steals in 91 attempts, the Nationals have turned a team strength into a decided weakness. They’ve now been successful on only 27 of their last 51 tries, an abysmal rate of only 52.9 percent.

"We've got to run," Martinez said. "We don't have guys that hit home runs all the time. So we've got to get on base, we've got to get in scoring position. Today we got thrown out a couple times, but we've been pretty good at it."

The Nats also played much of this game a man down after Jesse Winker was ejected arguing a borderline strike three call by Wendelstedt in the top of the fifth, forcing utilityman Ildemaro Vargas to take over as left fielder and No. 3 hitter. And when Martinez opted to have Millas pinch-run for Keibert Ruiz in the seventh – Millas did score from second on Abrams’ single, so it was worth it – the Nationals bench diminished in size again.

Mitchell Parker has stared down his face of challenges in his first two months in the big leagues, and tonight presented a new one: Coors Field. Just as fellow rookie DJ Herz found out Friday night, Parker learned this evening how the thin mountain air affects pitch location and movement and overall body fatigue.

That may have been most apparent in the bottom of the third. With two on and one out, Parker threw a first-pitch fastball to Brendan Rodgers that registered only 89.1 mph, more than 4 mph slower than his average fastball and more than 1 mph slower than his next-slowest fastball tonight. Unsurprisingly, Rodgers blasted it 436 feet to center field for a three-run homer.

"It was just a really bad fastball," Parker said. "A really, really bad fastball."

That really was Parker’s only mistake, though. He gave up a run in the first on three singles but could’ve escaped the inning unscathed had the Nationals been able to turn one of two potential-if-difficult double plays. Because of that, this game marked the first time the lefty has been charged with more than three earned runs in his 13 major league starts.

The game could’ve gotten away from Parker, but he responded to the homer in stellar fashion, retiring 10 of the last 12 batters he faced, striking out the final five Rockies who stepped to the plate. So if nothing else, the rookie gave his team six innings and took some of the weight off the bullpen’s shoulders.

"Minus the home run, I thought I did a decent job," he said. "I've got to limit the number of bad pitches, and then we'll be really good from there."

Even so, the bullpen was somewhat depleted tonight, with Dylan Floro and Robert Garcia having pitched the previous two days, Derek Law having thrown 23 pitches over 1 1/3 innings and Tanner Rainey having thrown 18 pitches over two innings Friday. So with a 5-4 lead in the seventh, Martinez turned to Jacob Barnes for a rare high-leverage assignment. Seconds later, the game was tied again, with Barnes serving up a leadoff homer to Hunter Goodman.

The Nationals still had some offense in them. But they still needed six more outs from the back end of their bullpen. On this night, in this ballpark, that was way too much to ask for. Even before the game ended in the most unusual manner possible.

"Honestly, you hate to see a game end that way, but I'm happy it worked out in our favor," said McMahon of his historic walk-off walk. "It's only fitting that we got the first shot-clock violation to win a game."

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