Rutledge's erratic debut too much for Nats to overcome in loss (updated)

PITTSBURGH – Jackson Rutledge seemed antsy when he walked into the Nationals clubhouse at PNC Park this afternoon. A major league debut can do that to a young pitcher.

The former first-round pick arrived in Pittsburgh just before last night’s game against the Pirates. He then spent the rest of the night and all day today anticipating his major league debut.

The nerves and adrenaline probably lingered up until his first pitch, as he was seen walking around the clubhouse pregame greeting his teammates and receiving congratulations. But it was also as if he couldn’t sit still in anticipation.

“Definitely a lot of pacing," Rutledge said of how he spent the day waiting for his debut. "Walking around the hotel just wanting my clock to start, wanting my routine to get going. Once I got here, things kind of went pretty smooth. Got to say hi to all the people, all my teammates and just do the usual routine. From there, it was just like it is any other outing.”

Hopefully, this isn't like any other subsequent outing because that nervous energy carried over into the game as Rutledge was clearly amped up for his first big league start. Erratic and unable to settle down, the seven runs he would allow proved too much for the Nationals to overcome despite a late rally in a 7-6 loss to the Pirates in front of an announced crowd of 9,883.

Rutledge came with a mid-to-upper 90s fastball, but he had trouble locating it throughout his start. Often way high, he threw 19 heaters in a 33-pitch first inning in which he gave up four runs on six hits.

Handed a 1-0 lead before he took the mound, the 24-year-old gave up four straight hits to begin the night and hand the Pirates a 2-1 lead. After finally recording his first out – a popout to shortstop – Rutledge gave up back-to-back RBI singles to increase the Pirates’ lead to 4-1.

“I think just establishing myself in the zone is the first thing," he said. "Obviously, I got behind more than I would have liked to. The first hitter I got behind. But battled back and kind of showed that I can throw all my pitches in the zone. Obviously, didn't have the best feel for the curveball today. It was missing up with the fastball, but those things happen. Especially with 11 days between starts. I didn't make my last start because of rain and all sorts of stuff. But first inning is about just establishing yourself in the zone.”

Rutledge did deal with some unfortunate luck in the first. Two of the hits against him just barely landed fair inside the line in shallow left field, one of which had an expected batting average of .082.

"Overall, his stuff is good," said manager Davey Martinez. "We just gotta get him to throw more strikes and get ahead of hitters. First inning, he threw some pretty good pitches. He just got dinged a little bit there. But overall, I thought he did OK for the first outing, I really did. I'm not gonna look at the runs. But he made some pretty good pitches. So we'll get him back out there in five or six days.”

He recorded his first career strikeout on a well-placed 97 mph fastball against Alfonso Rivas for the second out in the first. Then he finally got out of the frame on the ninth batter and 33rd pitch.

Rutledge seemed to settle down a bit in the second, only allowing one hit but retiring the side on 16 pitches.

”I think I mixed pitches better," he said. "I think I kind of use the bottom of the zone better. My bread and butter is getting ground balls and I didn't get very many tonight, which is kind of telltale of part of the zone that I was using. Probably overusing the four-seam a little bit. Later in the game, used the two-seamer a little bit more and had some success. And eventually brought out the curveball and got a quick out, and that's something I'd like to continue to do.”

But he gave up another run on two hits (the RBI double again barely landing in fair territory, this time down the right field line) in the third and then things got scary in the fourth.

Down 5-1, Rutledge issued a one-out walk to Ji Hwan Bae. When Bae tried to steal second, Drew Millas' throw hit a ducking, 6-foot-8 Rutledge in the head. Bae reached third on the catcher’s throwing error, but the bigger concern was Rutledge’s health. After talking with the training staff, he stayed in the game for two more batters: a two-run homer to Byran Reynolds and a popout in foul territory. Then Martinez came back out from the dugout to pull Rutledge from his debut.

"Honestly, on that play, I was kind of saying thank you for running because I know Millas is gonna throw him out. He's got a great arm," Rutledge said. "In Double-A and Triple-A with him, he's thrown out a lot of guys for me. And then I heard the ball coming at me. Yeah, I gotta work on getting out of the way a little bit more. But yeah, I'm OK, so we're good there. Obviously, I was able to continue going,. But yeah, just ... it was weird. Weird day.”

“I've seen it once (before). It's crazy," Martinez said. "He tried to get out the way. He bent down, but he's a big guy. Millas felt really bad. I'm just glad he came up and got his first home run after that, but he felt bad.”

Rutledge finished 3 ⅔ innings with 10 hits, seven runs, one walk, two strikeouts, one home run and a wild pitch on 90 pitches, 52 strikes. Although fastball-heavy, six of the 10 hits came off his changeup, a pitch that he has worked hard to improve over the last year.

"Definitely a whirlwind," he said. "I found out yesterday in the morning and basically drove through the straight over here. Just telling my family was amazing and being able to kind of share that with them was something I'll never forget. Obviously, tonight didn't go the way I wanted, but I'm a big leaguer and no one can take that from me. I'm going to be better next time out and today's over.”

Rutledge became the 17th consecutive Nationals starting pitcher to not earn the win in his major league debut, the last one to do so being Stephen Strasburg in 2010 against the Pirates. Everyone else since has gone 0-11 with six no-decisions.

By the time Joe La Sorsa finished the fourth inning, the Nationals were down 7-1. After a disappointing debut from a top prospect, any other team would have packed it in and looked ahead to tomorrow. But not these oh-so-scrappy Nats.

Millas sort of made up for plucking his pitcher by crushing his first major league homer in the fifth. Facing Quinn Priester, the Pirates’ No. 5 prospect per MLB Pipeline who followed opener Colin Selby, the rookie backstop hit a low-and-in curveball 405 feet into the right field seats for his first trot around the bases.

“Honestly, it was one of the weirdest nights of my life," Millas said. "I was so embarrassed before that first of all. Got a hanging curveball that I was looking for and hit it over the fence, and I just didn't know how to feel. Thankfully, Rut's OK, so it made everything better. But the homer itself, like I don't know if I could enjoy it because I thought Rut was down bad. I'm happy he's OK. And I'm happy I hit my homer, so it ended up working out OK. We didn't get the win, but that's OK. We fought hard today.”

The Nationals fought hard by making this a game again with a three-run sixth thanks to a leadoff walk by CJ Abrams, an RBI double by Lane Thomas and a two-run home run by Dominic Smith. Smith also scored the Nats’ first run of the night when his two-out double preceded Joey Meneses’ RBI single in the first.

And they weren’t done with their bases-loaded rally in the ninth.

Travis Blankenhorn drew a leadoff walk against Pirates closer David Bednar. Luis García singled him over to third and pinch-hitter Keibert Ruiz drove him in with an infield single that was upheld after a Pittsburgh challenge.

Jake Alu moved García to third by hitting into a force out at second and beating out the double play at first. García was replaced by pinch-runner Alex Call and pinch-hitter Ildemaro Vargas drew a walk to load the bases with one out.

But Abrams struck out and Thomas flew out to center to end their final rally.

“Good at-bats, good at-bats," Martinez said. "We were down quite a bunch of runs early. We chipped away and got a chance to come back and actually win the game. It just didn't happen. But the guys battled back. You get down like that, like I always say, it's tough to come back. But we did a good job.”

Although the offense was able to get within two runs and the bullpen faced the minimum over the last four innings, Rutledge’s rough start was enough to bury the Nationals.

“We gotta stay in the game early," the skipper said. "We've been like that all year. We never give up. I've said that before. We're gonna play hard for 27 outs. We did that again today.”

Game 147 lineups: Nats at Pirates
Rutledge recalled for debut, Thompson optioned to ...

By accepting you will be accessing a service provided by a third-party external to