Behind early rally and Irvin's latest gem, Nats finish trip strong (updated)

Lane Thomas

CLEVELAND – The schedule has not been kind to the Nationals through the season’s first two months, from far more games on the road (35) than at home (23) to a current stretch of 17 consecutive games without a scheduled day off to a number of series against some of the top contenders in both leagues.

How have the Nats handled it all? Maybe they haven’t thrived, but they’ve more than held their own under the circumstances.

With a 5-2 victory over the Guardians today, the Nationals secured a winning road trip at 4-3. They started the week taking three of four in Atlanta. They preceded that with a series win over the American Leauge West-leading Mariners, leaving them 6-4 so far during this particularly grueling stretch heading into a seven-game homestand against the Mets and Braves.

They may have lost this weekend series to Cleveland, currently in first place in the AL Central. But they admittedly gave away Saturday’s game with several defensive and baserunning gaffes. And then they bounced back and won today’s finale despite a depleted lineup missing both CJ Abrams and Jacob Young, thanks to one big early outburst and another strong pitching performance led by Jake Irvin.

"I think to win the majority of games on a road trip, against two teams that have played really well so far this year, I think it's a win in everyone's mind," outfielder Lane Thomas said. "I think we left some stuff on the table the first two games here, but they played well. I think we definitely could've made the first game closer and maybe been in contention yesterday. But it's a tough league, and we play a lot of games for a reason. Going forward, I think we have a chance to beat a lot more good teams."

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Nats outsmart, outhit Mariners late to win second straight (updated)

winker bunting gray

Too often this month the Nationals have put themselves in a position to score the late run they need to overcome an opponent, only to squander the prime opportunity with low-quality at-bats.

This time, they delivered when it mattered. And they did so in part by outsmarting the opposition.

During a critical sequence in the bottom of the seventh, Davey Martinez pressed all the right buttons that allowed the Nats to turn a tie game into a 3-1 victory over the Mariners, ensuring a series victory and a potential sweep Sunday afternoon.

"It kind of reminds me of the days we had the pitcher hitting," Martinez said. "A little National League game. It's fun when everyone's engaged and guys are playing well. Today, these guys were playing well."

Trevor Williams did his part to give his team a chance to win yet again with five strong innings of one-run ball. The bullpen did its part not to ruin Williams’ start. And the guys who stepped to the plate with the game on the line made sure none of it went to waste.

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Abrams, García, Winker all sit vs. lefty; Thomas runs bases again

CJ Abrams Luis Garcia Eddie Rosario

CHICAGO – Ildemaro Vargas was asked if he could remember the last time he batted third.

“Little League,” the Nationals utilityman said, lowering his right hand to a couple feet off the ground as if to show how tall he was at the time. “Unbelievable!”

That streak ends today, because Vargas is batting third for the Nats in their series finale against the White Sox, the focal point of a highly unconventional lineup card Davey Martinez filled out this morning.

With his team playing its third game in 24 hours following Tuesday’s doubleheader, and with a tough left-hander (Garrett Crochet) starting for Chicago, Martinez decided to sit a number of regulars who rarely get a chance to sit. CJ Abrams, Luis García Jr., Jesse Winker and Eddie Rosario will make up today’s bench.

Abrams, in particular, has been a workhorse. He missed three games in early April with a bruised finger, but otherwise has been in the Nationals lineup every day, starting each of the team’s last 31 games. The dynamic shortstop has perhaps started showing signs of wear and tear in recent weeks: After a dominant April that saw him slash .295/.373/.619, he’s cooled off significantly in May, slashing .196/.222/.235.

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Nats hang on for dear life during 1-0 win over Rangers (updated)

Trevor Williams

ARLINGTON, Texas – One-run games aren’t for the faint of heart. And by one-run games, we’re not talking about games with a one-run margin of victory. We’re talking about 1-0 games, where every moment is magnified, every pitch is crucial and any one mistake can spell doom.

That the Nationals somehow found a way to pull off a 1-0 win tonight over the Rangers was nothing short of remarkable. It required another highly effective performance from Trevor Williams, who twice stranded the bases loaded. It required the scratching across of a single run by a lineup that has done next to nothing in two nights at Globe Life Park. And it required some electric work from a bullpen that knew it had zero margin for error.

But that all somehow came together beautifully over the course of 2 hours, 11 minutes this evening, leaving Davey Martinez’s heart pounding but happy at the end of a taut ballgame.

"You know what," Martinez said, "it gets interesting at the end there. ... As I often say, we try to get one more than the other guys. And today, it came true."

The Nats are a .500 club once again, opening the month of May with a win over the defending World Series champs and now giving themselves another opportunity to get over the elusive hump in Thursday’s series finale.

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World Series anniversary weekend starts with loss to Astros (updated)

MacKenzie Gore city connect

It was no wonder the Nationals chose this weekend to celebrate the five-year anniversary of the 2019 World Series championship with the Astros in town for three games.

The pregame fanfare was a nice trip down memory lane. Clips of former players, such as Max Scherzer, Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon sharing memories and thanking fans were played on the new video board at Nats Park, along with highlights from that magical postseason run. The announced attendance of 22,999 fans gave loud ovations for manager Davey Martinez and first base coach Gerardo Parra during lineup introductions. And they booed loudly when Jose Altuve was introduced for the first (and his every subsequent) at-bat of the night.

But by the end of this series opener, the final result – a 5-3 loss – showed just how far apart these two franchises are five years after that Fall Classic intertwined them forever. (Although even with the loss, the Nats still have a better record at 8-11 than the Astros at 7-14.)

The game started off strong for MacKenzie Gore, making his fourth start of the season. He struck out Altuve and Yordan Alvarez on 97 and 98 mph fastballs and got Alex Bregman to fly out to right field on 16 pitches in the first.

The crowd was still coming through the gates, but they were into it.

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Nats face first lefty starter for home opener with Lipscomb at third, Vargas at second

Trey Lipscomb spring training

The Nationals’ home opener showcases a lot of new features to the young 2024 season.

As the home schedule on South Capitol Street kicks off, there are new things all around Nationals Park to experience. New concessions. New scoreboard. New lights. And a new lineup in just the fourth game of the year.

The Nationals will take on the first left-handed starting pitcher they've faced this season in the Pirates’ Marco Gonzales, meaning manager Davey Martinez will trot out his first right-handed-heavy lineup of the year.

Left-handed hitters Eddie Rosario, Joey Gallo and Luis García Jr. are on the bench. In their places, Victor Robles is playing center field, Joey Meneses is at first base and Ildemaro Vargas is at second, while rookie Trey Lipscomb stays at third. Catcher Keibert Ruiz is serving as the designated hitter while Riley Adams sets up behind the plate to catch the Nats’ own lefty starter in MacKenzie Gore.

“It wasn't that hard of a decision, it really wasn’t,” Martinez said ahead of this afternoon’s opener against the Pirates. “I want to get everybody in the game and get everybody involved. Keibert, who has swung the bat really well right-handed. Keep Meneses (in the lineup with Ruiz at DH) today. I wanted to get Riley back behind the plate today. Bump Lipscomb up a little bit because he's been swinging the bat well. He's done really well since he's been with us. But I want to get everybody involved. So we got some great options as far as if they make a switch and bring a righty in. We got some lefties on the bench. But I like the way we match up against this lefty today.”

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Starting lineups: Nats vs. Astros in West Palm Beach

Josiah Gray blue road

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – It’s a sweltering March afternoon here in South Florida, summer-type weather with popup thunderstorms all over the place. Hopefully that doesn’t impact tonight’s game, but the Nationals and Astros surely will be keeping an eye on the radar before and after they take the field.

Assuming no delays or poor conditions, Josiah Gray makes the start, his second-to-last tune-up before he takes the mound for real on Opening Day in Cincinnati. Gray enters with a 7.36 ERA this spring, but that’s more than a bit misleading. He was excellent in his first two starts, allowing one run and six baserunners in five innings. Then he was roughed up last time out, allowing five runs and nine baserunners in only 2 1/3 innings. That was 10 days ago, though, because Gray pitched on a back field in a minor league game last week. Either way, it’s important for him to build up some innings tonight and hopefully have some success against some good Houston hitters.

Most of the regulars are in the Nationals lineup, aside from Luis García Jr. and Nick Senzel. So it’ll be Ildemaro Vargas at second base and Trey Lipscomb at third base, all of them facing Cristian Javier.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS vs. HOUSTON ASTROS
Where:
CACTI Park of the Palm Beaches, West Palm Beach
Gametime: 6:05 p.m.
TV: MLB.tv (Astros feed)
Radio: 980 AM, MLB.com
Weather: Chance of storms, 85 degrees, wind 14 mph out to right field

NATIONALS
SS CJ Abrams
RF Lane Thomas
LF Eddie Rosario
1B Joey Meneses
DH Joey Gallo
C Keibert Ruiz
CF Victor Robles
2B Ildemaro Vargas
3B Trey Lipscomb

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First full workout features fundamentals, blasts by the kids

CJ Abrams spring training

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – They took the field as a team for the first time in 2024, Nationals pitchers, catchers and position players alike emerging from the clubhouse and heading outside to stretch, warm up and then conduct fundamental workouts in unison on the first day of full-squad workouts.

“Great day,” manager Davey Martinez said afterward. “A lot of energy. The boys were good. I saw some good pitching. I saw some good hitting. It was a good day.”

Fifty-four of the 58 players who have been invited to major league camp so far participated. One (Mason Thompson) is still in the middle of a two-week shutdown due to elbow soreness. One (Zach Davies) just arrived today after signing a minor league deal Sunday. One (Trevor Williams) is due to arrive later this week after his wife gave birth to the couple’s fifth child over the weekend. And one (Stephen Strasburg) may or may not take up the club’s request to come to Florida and mentor young pitchers even though he's no longer physically able to pitch himself.

Everyone else was good to go, and the ensuing 2 1/2 hours provided a combination of serious instruction, intriguing head-to-head matchups among teammates and ample opportunity for laughter and fun.

Martinez chose to set the tone for the workout – and the entire spring – with some baserunning instruction right off the top. The seventh-year manager gathered every position player around the plate for a lengthy discussion of baserunning expectations, then ushered everyone to first base where he personally demonstrated the proper way to take leads, get back to the bag or take off for second base and beyond.

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Are there still roles for Alu, Call, Kieboom, Vargas and Young?

Alex Call

Pick any lineup the Nationals fielded in September out of a hat, and you’re guaranteed to find the names of several players who have received scant attention around here all winter.

Jake Alu. Alex Call. Carter Kieboom. Ildemaro Vargas. Jacob Young.

Every single lineup card Davey Martinez filled out in September included at least two of those players. Many of them included three, or even four of them.

They received some of the most regular playing time on the roster late last season, and they’re all still part of the 40-man roster. But who – if anyone – is actually in the Nats’ 2024 plan?

If the rest of the winter plays out as expected, none should be in line to start Opening Day. And only a couple or three of them should even wind up on the Opening Day bench.

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Versatile Vargas will be asked to do many things in 2024

Ildemaro Vargas throwing gray

PLAYER REVIEW: ILDEMARO VARGAS

Age on Opening Day 2024: 32

How acquired: Signed as minor league free agent, May 2022

MLB service time: 4 years, 7 days

2023 salary: $975,000

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Vargas agrees to 2024 contract early, avoids arbitration

Ildemaro Vargas throwing gray

BALTIMORE – Ildemaro Vargas didn’t need to do anything yet. The Nationals utility man will have four years, seven days of big league service time at the end of the week, so he would’ve been eligible for arbitration this winter, able to negotiate his salary at a later date.

For Vargas, though, the appeal of wrapping up talks now and heading home for the offseason secure in knowing everything was already taken care of was strong.

“As a professional baseball (player), I know how the situation is,” he said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “And there is some calmness and relief to be able to go home into the offseason knowing I already have a contract made, just for peace of mind for myself and my family.”

So Vargas and the Nats made the unconventional move to come to terms on a 2024 contract today, with four games still to go in the season. Terms weren’t announced, but he’ll be back next season, earning a raise from the $975,000 salary he made this year.

Vargas joined the Nationals in August 2022, called up from Triple-A Rochester after Ehire Adrianza was traded to the Braves. He has remained part of the big league roster every day since, establishing himself as one of Davey Martinez’s most-trusted bench players and a popular veteran voice in a clubhouse loaded with younger players.

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On Kieboom's arm, Vargas' workload and Adams' slide

Carter Kieboom

TORONTO – Some assorted news and notes coming out of the finale of the Nationals’ four-city, 10-game road trip …

* Carter Kieboom was called up from Triple-A Rochester the day the trip began, way back on Aug. 20 in Williamsport, Pa. He didn’t appear in that game but was in the lineup the following night at Yankee Stadium and homered on the first pitch he saw in the majors in nearly two years.

Kieboom would go on to start seven of the remaining nine games of the trip, sitting once in New York and once in Toronto. He would hit two more homers and finish 7-for-26 with a double, three homers, five RBIs and six strikeouts.

In five of those games, though, Kieboom was pulled either in the eighth or ninth inning for defense. Davey Martinez, wanting to give his team its best chance at closing out wins, has had Ildemaro Vargas finish games at third base, a move that notably paid off Tuesday night when Vargas made a tough play on a slow bouncer with the bases loaded.

Martinez is prioritizing defense, but he also has been protecting Kieboom, who missed all of 2022 following Tommy John surgery and then missed more time this season with shoulder trouble stemming from his rehab from the major elbow procedure. That will probably remain the case for the time being, which Kieboom understands, even though he insists his arm feels strong now.

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Ruiz gets one more day of rest, Young gets first start

ruiz swinging gray

MIAMI – For the fourth straight game and fifth in the Nationals’ last six, Riley Adams will start behind the plate in Sunday’s finale against the Marlins.

As they go for a sweep of their division rival, the Nats continue to monitor Keibert Ruiz’s health after he took a foul tip off his face mask Wednesday in New York. Adams replaced him to catch the eighth inning, so this is actually his sixth straight game getting behind the dish in some capacity.

Ruiz was scratched from Thursday’s lineup because he felt lightheaded. He felt fine enough to be the designated hitter Friday night in Miami, but hasn’t been in the lineup since. Manager Davey Martinez said yesterday Ruiz spent most of Saturday morning at the dentist and was given some more time to recover.

“After talking to the medical staff last night, we just wanted to give him another day today and make sure that he's totally good so he could come back and get ready to go,” Martinez said during his pregame media session Sunday. “Riley Adams has been playing well. We just want to give him another day and make sure he's well and rested and ready to go tomorrow.”

The Nationals expect Ruiz, who has been in the clubhouse all weekend in his normal upbeat mood, to play in Monday’s opener in Toronto. The catcher is taking some new medication, which should take full effect in his system by tomorrow’s game against the Blue Jays.

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Nats cruise to victory after Adon departs early with cramps (updated)

GettyImages-1608634436

Tonight was supposed to be the first turn of the Nationals’ new six-man rotation, with Joan Adon making his second start since being inserted last week.

But the thing about a six-man rotation is that they need six men to pitch in it.

Adon’s availability moving forward is now in question after he was pulled from tonight’s 8-2 win over the Athletics with cramps in his legs while warming up for the fourth inning.

“I just started on my warmups and I felt it right away in my calf and in my groin a little bit," Adon said after the game, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "One was my calf on one side and my groin on the other.”

The 26-year-old right-hander, who threw an impressive quality start Saturday in Cincinnati, threw a couple of warmup pitches to backup catcher Riley Adams in between the third and fourth innings. But before Keibert Ruiz could even get his catching gear on, manager Davey Martinez and head athletic trainer Paul Lessard were out of the dugout checking on the starting pitcher and then departed with him.

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Two-run homers bury Nats in series finale (updated)

alu sad grey

PHILADELPHIA – It’s almost impossible to stop them. All you can really do is try to limit them.

“That team over there was built to hit home runs,” manager Davey Martinez said earlier this week.

That they were and they showed it as they took three of four games from the Nationals, who lost Thursday’s finale 6-2 in front of 30,113 fans at Citizens Bank Park.

It was the usual suspects for the Phillies, who scored all six of their runs on three two-run homers. And it wouldn’t be a Nats-Phillies game without a former National doing some damage.

It was Trea Turner’s turn tonight, hitting a go-ahead two-run home run in the sixth to give Philly a 2-1 lead. Then Nick Castellanos (his third in the last two games) and J.T. Realmuto each hit two-run shots to put this game out of reach in the seventh.

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Nats recall Alu from Rochester, claim Garcia from Marlins (plus minors notes)

Jake Alu cherry

We are just minutes before the trade deadline, and although the Nationals have made a few roster moves this afternoon, none of them have been in the form of a trade like last night’s deal of Jeimer Candelario to the Cubs for two prospects.

This afternoon the Nats announced they recalled infielder Jake Alu from Triple-A Rochester to take Candelario’s spot on the active roster.

“I was excited,” Alu said back in the Nats clubhouse. “I kind of understood the scenario of everything. Like I said, I was playing baseball just one day at a time and kind of just staying focused as much as I could. That's kind of how I went about it.”

This marks Alu’s fourth major league stint this season. He has appeared in five games, going 3-for-14 (.214) with one walk and one stolen base with the Nats.

On the farm, Alu, 26, has been having another strong season. He's tied for first among Nationals farmhands with 22 doubles and ranks in the system in hits (third, 90), runs (fifth, 48), batting average (sixth, .293), OPS (seventh, .777), RBIs (tied for seventh, 43), slugging percentage (eighth, .420) extra-base hits (eighth, 28) and on-base percentage (10th, .357).

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Slumping Thomas gets rare day off, Nats make bullpen move

Lane Thomas swinging gray

NEW YORK – When the Nationals’ lineup for today’s series finale against the Mets was posted and Lane Thomas’ name was notably missing, eyebrows surely were raised within the clubhouse, the fan base and perhaps around the rest of the majors.

Such is life in the final days of July, when any player who could be on the trade block doesn’t play.

Thomas’ day off, though, is nothing more than that. Manager Davey Martinez said he had been wanting to give his right fielder a breather for a while, and with a quick turnaround from Saturday night’s rain-delayed win, this felt like the right time to do it.

“He’s good. I’ve just got to give him a day,” Martinez said. “I just wanted to give him a day off today, and he’ll come back tomorrow and be ready to go.”

Thomas started 103 of the Nationals’ first 105 games this season, and both of his days off came way back in April. His performance and importance to a lineup short on consistent production has dictated his usage, and Martinez has been hesitant to sit him at all.

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Nats routed by Phillies after Gore departs early (updated)

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PHILADELPHIA – The Nationals were riding high into Saturday’s late afternoon game against the Phillies.

One of their young starting pitchers tossed perhaps his best game as a major leaguer when Josiah Gray shoved for six innings of one-run ball in last night’s 2-1 win.

That set the Nats up today to win their third straight series and to do something they haven’t done since June 27-30, 2021: Have a winning streak longer than three games.

But that all came crashing down with today’s 19-4 thrashing by the Phillies, much to the delight of the 42,784 fans at Citizens Bank Park.

Score aside, the story of this one for the Nationals was MacKenize Gore’s early departure.

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Another off-day for Meneses as Vargas enters lineup

Joey Meneses swing gray

PHILADELPHIA – The Nationals are trying to get Joey Meneses right.

Despite a lack of power from the everyday designated hitter, Meneses has been one of the Nats’ more consistent hitters this year.

He enjoyed a career-best 18-game on-base streak from May 21 to June 11, during which he slashed .357/.430/.443 with an .873 OPS, four doubles, one triple, 10 RBI and nine walks to eight strikeouts.

But since that streak ended, he is slashing a paltry .179/.190/.250 with a .440 OPS, four doubles, seven RBIs and one walk to a staggering 18 strikeouts.

So for the fourth time in just over two weeks, Meneses will take a seat as the Nationals face Phillies right-hander Zack Wheeler after he only missed a combined three games over the first 66 of the season (two of those games when he was placed on the paternity list for the birth of his first child).

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Abrams gets another day off, Smith stays in lineup

abrams salutes white

CJ Abrams is starting to get more regular days off as Nationals manager Davey Martinez tries to give his young shortstop more opportunities to rest his body and mind in his first full big league season.

Abrams, who started 31 of the Nats’ first 32 games this season, is not in the lineup for today’s series finale against the Phillies. It’s the fifth time he hasn’t started in the team’s last 27 games. It’s also the second straight Sunday he’s had off.

“Just kind of let him relax a little bit,” Martinez said.

It’s been an eventful stretch for Abrams, who played a key role in recent road wins in Kansas City and Los Angeles but also committed three errors in his last five games, a couple of them particularly costly ones.

With the team off Monday, this gives Abrams a chance for an extended rest before he returns to the lineup Tuesday night against the Diamondbacks.

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