For all the attention that’s been paid to MacKenzie Gore and Josiah Gray – and for all the attention that will be paid to Cade Cavalli once he returns from Tommy John surgery – the Nationals have another young starter who has made just as compelling a case to be part of this team’s long-term plan.
In some ways, Jake Irvin’s case is even stronger than his rotation mates, if for no other reason than the immutable fact he’s been the Nats’ most consistently effective starter for months.
The fourth-round pick from the 2018 draft may have the pedigree others do, and he may not have shown up on prospect rankings the way others did, but consider the body of work he’s amassed this year: Irvin has a lower ERA than Gore, a lower WHIP than Gray and has averaged more innings per start than either.
Irvin wasn't rewarded for his efforts tonight with an individual win, but at least his Nationals teammates somehow found a way to come away with a collective win, topping the Dodgers 7-6 in 11 wacky innings to cap a long day and night on South Capitol Street.
"That's all we're looking for: For the team to take steps forward," Irvin said. "Tonight was just a grind. The defense played absolutely outstanding. It was a lot of fun to watch."
A wild, back-and-forth affair extended well into Saturday night before it was finally decided without a ball being put into play. Automatic runner Michael Chavis took third on Jacob Young's sacrifice bunt but chose not to try to score on Lane Thomas' grounder to short. Moments later, Chavis sprinted home on Gus Varland's wild pitch, barely scoring ahead of the tag to give the Nationals the win in improbable fashion.
"It's one of those where it kind of sucks because you're just standing there watching the play unfold and you feel useless," Chavis said of the grounder when he held at third. "But luckily I got an opportunity on the next play to read the dirt ball and get a jump on that."
Despite four relievers giving up runs in four consecutive innings - Jordan Weems in the seventh, Hunter Harvey in the eighth, Kyle Finnegan in the ninth and Robert Garcia in the 10th - Andrés Machado was able to strand the Dodgers' automatic runner in the top of the 11th and give his teammates a chance to win it.
The Nats had already rallied to tie in the bottom of the 10th on Keibert Ruiz's RBI single to right-center, which scored automatic runner Carter Kieboom from second. Now, they rallied to win in the bottom of the 11th and finish the night in style.
"I think everybody would've been happy if we did it earlier," said Thomas, who became the fifth player in club history to homer in four consecutive games played. "It's a quick turnaround tomorrow. But it was awesome. A lot of energy. I think those guys take advantage of mistakes, and we've just got to take advantage of theirs, too."
What should've been a nice-and-tidy (if very long) win thanks to Irvin's six innings of one-run ball instead turned tense late by a bullpen that is starting to show cracks in September. Harvey gave up a two-run homer to Max Muncy in the top of the eighth, trimming the Nats' lead to one run. Finnegan then blew the save in the ninth via an 11-pitch walk, a stolen base and throwing error on Ruiz and an RBI single by Kolten Wong.
"These guys have been horses for us all year long," manager Davey Martinez said. "I'm not going to sit here (and criticize them). They've been amazing. And we've used them a lot. It's that time. They're grinding. They're giving you everything they've got every time I put them out there."
That set the stage for a dramatic finish, one way or the other, for anyone who was able to hang in there all the way until the end.
A crowd of 34,562 was beginning to gather for a 4:05 p.m. ballgame, but the sight of the tarp on the field and neither starting pitcher in the bullpen tipped off anyone paying attention that this game would not be starting on time. Little could anyone have realized just how long it would be before play actually commenced.
It was 8:15 p.m. when Irvin finally delivered his first pitch to David Peralta, with a surprisingly large number of fans who waited out the long delay in person (or left the park and returned in a rare allowance by the club) here to witness it.
And it was 8:21 p.m. when Irvin became the eighth consecutive Nationals starter to give up a run in the top of the first. Yes, that’s every game of this homestand, with Trevor Williams left to try to end the streak Sunday.
Irvin’s struggles didn’t last for long, though. After allowing a leadoff single to Peralta, a double to Freddie Freeman and a sacrifice fly to Muncy, he found his groove in a hurry and never looked back. The rookie proceeded to retire 17 of the last 20 batters he faced, allowing only one more hit and allowing only one more runner to reach second base.
"A day like today, you don't really know what's going on," he said. "You just try to stay relaxed and be ready to go when your number's called. It's exhausting, but at the end of the day, that's part of our job."
As he hopped off the mound following a three-pitch strikeout of Muncy to end the sixth at 88 pitches, Irvin very much looked the part of an established big league pitcher. He now owns a respectable 4.20 ERA in 22 career starts. More importantly, he continues to get better: his ERA over his last 15 starts is 3.59, and over his last seven starts it’s a sparkling 2.75.
"I can see the growth in him," Martinez said. "He's attacking the zone. He's doing everything we've asked of him. He understands what he wants to do. He has a plan. He's been awesome. From where we started with him, to where we are now, he's made unbelievable strides."
This is Irvin’s first major league season, though, and he’s two years removed from Tommy John surgery. So the Nationals are trying to be careful with him, which likely explains why Martinez didn’t let him return for the top of the seventh tonight with a pitch count of only 88.
The Nats led 3-1 at that point. They got there with a first-inning run made possible by CJ Abrams’ leadoff triple and Thomas’ subsequent sacrifice fly, then a pair of runs in the fifth via Garcia’s RBI single (his first hit since returning from Triple-A Rochester) and Dominic Smith’s bases-loaded sacrifice fly.
So now it was up to the back end of the bullpen to make that lead hold up late. It did not do its part, and so this game remained undecided late into the night, the difference in emotion between a win and a loss growing with each wild development.
"It makes it worth it," Chavis said. "Because we were here all day. It worked out really well. The guys are all going home on a little bit of a high note. Hopefully we can keep that energy going into tomorrow."