Scrappy Nats rally for fifth straight series win (updated)

MIAMI – The Nationals have been playing great ball lately. After last night’s 7-4 win over the Marlins – their first of the season against the Fish and first in Miami since last season – they were in line to win their fifth straight series this afternoon.

A sign of their good play recently is the amount of close games they’ve been in. Four of their last five wins have been by just a one-run margin. These Nats are as scrappy as ever after making it five of their last six.

The Nationals won another tight game in front of 13,966 fans at loanDepot Park, this time thanks to a ninth-inning rally for a 3-2 win.

“That was a good one," said manager Davey Martinez. "That's a well-played game."

The Nats tied it in the ninth after Lane Thomas hit a leadoff triple to right-center and Joey Meneses was hit by a pitch, with Jacob Young making his major league debut as a pinch-runner at first. But Dominic Smith’s hard-hit ball was fielded by Luis Arraez, who then threw out Thomas at home. An infield popout by Carter Kieboom put two outs on the board.

“Arraez made a great play," Martinez said. "One, I didn't think he was gonna get to the ball. Two, to come up firing like that and make an unbelievable throw. I mean, if he throws it high, we're safe. He made an unbelievable throw right on target. Great play."

Up stepped Jake Alu, who, in a full count against David Robertson, hit the game-tying RBI single up the middle to score Young and move pinch-runner Michael Chavis to third base. A passed ball against catcher Jacob Stallings allowed Chavis to score and put the Nationals ahead.

“I was kind of just looking for a good pitch to hit," Alu said. "And I was kind of seeing the ball well down today. I think a few more at-bats I was up, I was taking the lower pitches. So I was seeing it well and finally got to that 3-2 count. He's gotta throw a strike there, so got it done.”

“I figured it was something that definitely could happen with me starting on the bench today," Young said. "I figured pinch-run or defensive substitution was something that could happen, so I was ready for it. Feels great when (Martinez) calls your name because you know he trusts you. It was great to score that tying run and get the win.”

Kyle Finnegan recorded his 24th save in the ninth.

The ninth-inning rally was necessary after Jordan Weems replaced Jose A. Ferrer with one out in the eighth and served up a first-pitch home run to Jorge Soler, his 34th of the season. Weems left a 97 mph fastball right down the middle for the slugger to hit 367 feet to left field.

"We scratched and clawed to get a couple of runs," Martinez said. "They came back, Soler hit a big home run. And as I always say, our guys don't quit. They're gonna play hard for 27 outs. We get a couple of guys on base. Jake Alu with a big single right there. A good heads-up play by Chavy, who just pinch-ran. Finnegan comes in and closes out the game. Well done. I loved the way we played today. We stayed in there."

All of this late-inning drama came after Jake Irvin held his own in a pitchers’ duel with former top pitching prospect Eury Pérez.

“I thought it was awesome," Martinez said of the matchup between the two rookie hurlers. "I was truly impressed about the way both of those young kids pitched. Pérez is gonna be a good one. I mean, he already is, but he's gonna be real good and someone to contend with in the future. But I'm proud of our guys. I'm proud of Jake staying in there, finishing the game strong and giving us a chance to win.”

Pérez, who lost his prospect status earlier this year, entered today’s start with a lot of flash after his 10-strikeout performance against the Dodgers a week ago. Irvin, on the other hand, was never ranked among the Nationals’ top pitching prospects. But the 26-year-old showed today he’s more than capable of being a major league starter and hanging with the best of his rookie class.

“He's had a great rookie year and he's got a bright future ahead of him. He's very talented," Irvin said of Pérez. "To just kind of be able to put on the cleats against a guy like that, it's pretty cool.”

Irvin started the day with a perfect first inning on 13 pitches. And although he allowed at least one baserunner in each of his subsequent five innings, only one of them crossed home plate.

That one was former National Josh Bell in the sixth inning. In his previous at-bat in the fourth, Irvin struck out Bell with an up-and-away 95-mph sinker. Irvin tried to come back with that same pitch in the sixth, but Bell was able to smack it the other way for a 366-foot home run to tie the game at one.

“It's been something that I've liked a lot in the past and just hadn't had the situations to use it," Irvin said of his sinker. "But finding times now, and, like you said, you gain confidence in that. It's been a game-changer for me.”

Irvin came back to get a strikeout and groundout to end his day with four hits, one run, three walks and three strikeouts on 96 pitches, 58 strikes. It was an impressive third straight quality start for the right-hander, though he hasn’t been the pitcher of record in any of them.

“It's throwing strikes early, attacking guys, just keeping guys off balance and hopefully getting weak contact," Irvin said. "Like I said, the defense has played great and the way we're playing ball right now, man, I just got to keep us in the game and those guys are gonna do their thing.”

“He had a good fastball, a good changeup and curveball was good," Martinez said. "But the biggest thing, he was pumping strikes, threw strikes when he needed to. He fell behind a little bit early, but he came back and pumped strikes. He was really good. His fastball was really, really good today.”

The Nationals had nothing going against Pérez to back up their own young starter. Their first baserunner against the 20-year-old right-hander came on Meneses’ two-out double in the fourth inning. Even the run Meneses would eventually score wasn’t charged as an earned one to Pérez thanks to a throwing error by shortstop Joey Wendle on Smith’s grounder.

For eight innings, it seemed like one unearned run wasn’t enough to beat this Marlins pitching staff today. But that’s why you play the full nine.

“This is one of the best clubhouses I've ever been a part of, by far," Alu said. "It's really fun. All the guys are on each other and we kinda just want to play behind each other. We're playing for the guy next to us. And I think if you have 20 to 27 guys doing that, it's pretty special.”

The Nationals have won 11 of their last 14, with a 16-7 record in August and 25-15 record since the All-Star break. They’ll have another chance at their fourth sweep of the second half tomorrow.

"Just really cool, man," said Irvin. "This team is so awesome.”

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