Cruz and Escobar return to lineup, Adon faces Marlins

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MIAMI – After a rough start to the week in the form of an 8-2 loss to the Marlins on Monday, the Nationals were greeted to some good news before the second game of this three-game set at loanDepot Park.

Nelson Cruz returns to the starting lineup after being a pregame scratch with an illness before last night’s game. He left the Nationals clubhouse yesterday while wearing a mask – sent away from the rest of the team to keep anyone else from getting sick – but returned this afternoon without a face covering.

“He was good. He just said he wasn't feeling well yesterday, so precautionary,” said manager Davey Martinez during his pregame session with the media. “You know, I don't want anybody else getting sick. He woke up today, said he felt fine. I watched him do his warmups and he hit in the cage and looked good. So he's back in there.”

Cruz is back in his usual designated hitter role and batting cleanup behind Cesár Hernández, Juan Soto and Josh Bell. Yadiel Hernandez, who replaced Cruz as the DH last night while Lane Thomas took over in left field, is back in left and hitting fifth.

The 41-year-old gets another chance to continue his much-improved May after a rough start to the season in April: He’s slashing .275/.333/.450 with a .783 OPS, two homers and nine RBIs over his first 11 games this month. Cruz can also try to take advantage of the controlled elements inside the roofed loanDepot Park, a stadium where he’s only made two plate appearances during his career spent mostly in the American League.

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Game 38 lineups: Nats at Marlins

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MIAMI – Would you believe it if I told you the Nationals are looking for their first win of the season against the Marlins tonight?

Well, it’s true. The Marlins have won all four matchups so far in 2022, most recently last night behind a dominant start by Sandy Alcantara. These are not the same Marlins, against whom the Nationals used to rack up wins.

The Nats have at least one win against every opponent they’ve faced this year except the Fish.

Joan Adon will try to get deeper into tonight’s game than Aaron Sanchez’s 3 ⅔ innings of work last night. However, that’s also how far Adon went in his last start when he gave up three runs and five walks to the Mets. The rookie is 1-6 with a 7.03 ERA on the season and hasn’t faced the Fish yet in his young career.

Meanwhile, the Nats offense hopes to have more success against Cody Poteet than they did against Alcantara. The 27-year-old right-hander makes his first start of the season after posting an impressive 0.55 ERA and 0.980 WHIP in 16 ⅓ innings over eight relief appearances.

Poteet hasn’t faced the Nats this year and gave up five runs in three innings in his only start against them last year.

Nelson Cruz and Alcides Escobar will both return to the lineup tonight. 

WASHINGTON NATIONALS at MIAMI MARLINS
Where: loanDepot Park
Gametime: 6:40 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN2, MLB.tv
Radio: 106.7 The Fan, MLB.com
Weather: Indoors

NATIONALS
2B César Hernández
RF Juan Soto
1B Josh Bell
DH Nelson Cruz
LF Yadiel Hernandez
C Keibert Ruiz
3B Maikel Franco
SS Alcides Escobar
CF Victor Robles

RHP Joan Adon

MARLINS
2B Jazz Chisholm Jr.
1B Jesús Aguilar
DH Garrett Cooper
RF Avasaíl García
LF Brian Anderson
CF Bryan De La Cruz
C Jacob Stallings
SS Miguel Rojas
3B Erik González

RHP Cody Poteet

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Soto and Martinez staying positive after more frustration at the plate

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MIAMI – We hear it all the time when teams go through offensive slumps. It’s the major leagues. The guy on the mound gets paid to get batters out, too.

Sometimes it’s just the case that a team runs into some tough pitching matchups.

That has been the case for the Nationals, who, aside from an 8-3 win over the Mets and a 13-6 victory over the Astros, have struggled to score in bunches over the past week.

Over their last five losses, the Nats have been outscored 30-6 and have failed to score more than two runs in a game.

The latest such games came facing future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander on Sunday and budding star Sandy Alcantara on Monday. Sometimes the cards you’re dealt are really good pitchers.

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Alcantara dominates Nats while Sanchez struggles early in loss (updated)

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MIAMI – It’s been all or nothing at all lately for the Nationals. They won by five-run and seven-run margins in their two victories over the last week. They then failed to score more than two runs in any of their four losses.

On Sunday, they ran into a red-hot Justin Verlander, who held them scoreless over five innings in an eventual 8-0 loss. On Monday night, it was the Marlins’ Sandy Alcantara who kept the Nationals bats quiet while handing down an 8-2 loss in front of 6,601 at loanDepot Park.

So now that makes no more than two runs scored in each of their last five losses.

The evening actually started off well for the visiting side. César Hernández greeted Alcantara with a leadoff single in the top of the first and would eventually come all the way around to score on an RBI single from Yadiel Hernandez (filling the designated hitter role after Nelson Cruz was scratched from the lineup with an illness) for a quick 1-0 lead.

That would be all the Nats could muster off Alcantara.

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Cruz scratched from lineup with illness, plus other notes

Nelson Cruz Gray

MIAMI – The Nationals will be without designated hitter Nelson Cruz for Monday’s series opener against the Marlins.

Originally slated to bat fourth in his usual DH role, Cruz was scratched just under two hours before the scheduled first pitch to start this three-game set in Miami. Yadiel Hernandez will now bat cleanup as the designated hitter, with Lane Thomas sliding into left field and batting seventh.

Cruz was seen earlier today in the Nationals clubhouse before the team took the field for pregame warmups. He was wearing a mask as he gathered his things and left the clubhouse shortly before the media spoke to manager Davey Martinez.

“Yeah, we might have a lineup change,” Martinez said when asked about Cruz’s sudden departure. “He didn't feel too good. I didn't want him around the other boys. So I'm going to talk to our trainers after this and we'll figure out what's going on.”

Whether Cruz was wearing a mask for precautionary reasons or it was deemed that he had to remains unclear. No other players, coaches or staff members were seen wearing masks.

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Game 37 lineups: Nats at Marlins (updated)

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MIAMI – ¡Bienvenidos a Miami! After finishing up a six-game homestand by going 2-4 against the Mets and Astros, the Nationals now embark on a six-game road trip starting with tonight’s series opener against the Marlins.

Interestingly enough, the Nats have fared much better away from their home ballpark so far in 2022. They’re 7-9 (.438) in their 16 road games and have outscored their opponents 94-86. They are 5-15 (.250) and have been outscored 100-56 in 20 home games.

Aaron Sanchez will look to build off one of his strongest outings as a National, when he held the Mets to three runs on six hits with no walks over 5 1/3 innings Wednesday. For the season, Sanchez is 2-2 with a 7.58 ERA and 1.421 WHIP over four starts.

Sanchez made two starts against the Marlins last year as a member of the Giants, holding the Fish to just one run over a combined 9 2/3 innings.

Sandy Alcantara will take the bump for Don Mattingly’s club while looking to continue his strong start to the season. The right-hander is 2-2 with a 2.74 ERA that ranks ninth in the National League. He held the Nats to just one run over six innings in an April 26 win at Nationals Park.

This is my first solo road trip covering the Nats, so I’m excited to bring you coverage this week from South Beach. Mark Zuckerman will rejoin the team in Milwaukee on Friday.

Update: Nelson Cruz was scratched from tonight's lineup. Manager Davey Martinez said the slugger wasn't feeling well. Yadiel Hernandez is now the designated hitter and batting fourth, and Lane Thomas is now in left field and batting seventh.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS at MIAMI MARLINS
Where: loanDepot Park
Gametime: 6:40 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN2, MLB.tv
Radio: 106.7 The Fan, MLB.com
Weather: Indoors

NATIONALS
2B César Hernández
RF Juan Soto
1B Josh Bell
DH Nelson Cruz Yadiel Hernandez
C Keibert Ruiz
3B Maikel Franco
LF Lane Thomas
SS Dee Strange-Gordon
CF Victor Robles

RHP Aaron Sanchez

MARLINS
2B Jazz Chisholm
DH Jesús Aguilar
LF Jorge Soler
1B Garrett Cooper
RF Avasaíl García
3B Brian Anderson
CF Bryan De La Cruz
SS Erik González
C Jacob Stallings

RHP Sandy Alcantara

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Nats can't touch Verlander, late homers doom Corbin

Patrick Corbin throwing white

It had all the trimmings of a classic pitchers’ duel, Justin Verlander and Patrick Corbin matching zeros in the run column while Verlander maintained a zero in the hits column as well.

For Verlander, though, this was par for the course. He just carried a no-hit bid into the eighth inning in his previous start.

For Corbin, this was uncharted territory for 2022. And 2020 and 2021, for that matter. The pressure rested squarely upon the left-hander’s shoulder to keep up with his more accomplished counterpart. And though he did best Verlander in the length of his start, Corbin came nowhere close to beating him in the only department that actually counts.

Three late homers by the Astros spoiled Corbin’s afternoon. And with the Nationals unable to push a run across in five innings against Verlander or the next four innings against Houston relievers, the end result was an 8-0 loss that didn’t really convey the type of ballgame this actually was.

"Look who we faced today," manager Davey Martinez said. "We've been swinging the bat well. Regardless of whether or not we score runs, we've been getting five, six, seven, eight hits a game. Today, that guy was good."

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Opportunities for Rainey to pitch remain sparse

Tanner Rainey throw white

Tanner Rainey is the Nationals’ best reliever. Or, at least, they’re handling him like he’s their best reliever, using him as their closer when the opportunity presents itself.

Trouble is, there just haven’t been many of those opportunities to date.

The Nats have held a lead of three or fewer runs in the ninth inning only four times through the season’s first 35 games. And it’s happened, remarkably, only once in their last 22 games. (The team’s last six wins all have come by at least four runs, often many more.)

Which has left Rainey frequently doing nothing but watching games from the bullpen without ever taking the mound himself. He has appeared only 10 times overall this season, only four times so far this month.

So when the latter innings of Saturday night’s 13-6 rout of the Astros came around, manager Davey Martinez felt he had no choice but to go ahead and pitch Rainey, no matter the score. It was the 29-year-old’s first outing since his lone blown save Sunday in Anaheim, the third time already this season he was pitching on five days’ rest.

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Game 36 lineups: Nats vs. Astros

Patrick Corbin throw white wide

The Nationals were held to one run during Friday night’s loss to the Astros. They exploded for 13 runs during Saturday night’s win over the Astros. So what should we expect from them during today’s series finale against the Astros?

As much as you’d love to see another offensive explosion, you’ve got to think the odds are stacked against them, with Justin Verlander taking the mound for Houston. The 39-year-old right-hander has been phenomenal so far this season, with a 4-1 record and league-leading 1.55 ERA and 0.639 WHIP. And he’s doing this in his return from Tommy John surgery. Like his former rotation mate in Detroit, Max Scherzer, Verlander is a freak of nature.

There are several Nationals with considerable experience against Verlander. Nelson Cruz is 15-for-57 with four doubles, three homers and 11 RBIs. Alcides Escobar is 18-for-88 with four doubles and four RBIs. And, of course, Juan Soto is 2-for-6 with a double and a titanic home run off Verlander during the 2019 World Series.

Runs are probably going to be at a premium today, though, so the pressure’s on Patrick Corbin to deliver another quality start. The left-hander seems to have turned his entire season around over his last three starts, producing a 2.37 ERA and 1.158 WHIP. The challenge today against the Astros lineup will be tougher, but success in this one might be the most legitimate evidence to date that Corbin actually has turned a corner.

HOUSTON ASTROS at WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Where: Nationals Park
Gametime: 1:35 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN, MLB.tv
Radio: 106.7 FM, MLB.com
Weather: Chance of rain late, 79 degrees, wind 5 mph out to left field

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Bats spring to life during lopsided win over Astros (updated)

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No major league club has played better, or particularly pitched better, this month than the Astros. The Houston staff that walked into Nationals Park tonight had surrendered a grand total of 12 runs over the last 11 games. Not surprisingly, all 11 resulted in victory for Dusty Baker’s squad.

So consider what the Nationals just did on this Saturday evening, and try to explain it. Scoring a run in the first and then multiple runs in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth innings, they torched the Astros’ previously ironclad pitching staff during a 13-6 win that kind of defied logic.

The same Nats lineup that has struggled so mightily to produce extra-base hits got five of them in this game, including Yadiel Hernandez’s three-run homer, Nelson Cruz’s three-run double and Maikel Franco’s two-run homer.

All told, the Nationals crossed the plate more times tonight than they did their previous four games combined, putting an end the Astros’ winning streak with emphasis and giving a crowd of 22,949 plenty of reason to cheer, something that has been in woefully short supply this season.

"Just good at-bats," Cruz said. "We were patient. We hit strikes. We were facing pretty good pitchers, from their starters to their relievers. To be able to score that many runs, it shows how good of a lineup we have."

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Strasburg, Ross to begin five-day pitching schedule

Stephen Strasburg throwing blue home

Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross are ready to shift into a regular, five-day pitching routine that could prepare them to join the Nationals’ rotation sometime next month after completing their latest simulated games with no issues.

Strasburg, who is recovering from last summer’s thoracic outlet surgery, and Ross, who is recovering from March’s surgery to remove a bone spur in his elbow, each tossed two innings during a simulated game Friday in West Palm Beach, Fla. Strasburg threw 27 pitches, reaching 92 mph with his fastball, according to manager Davey Martinez. Ross threw 33 pitches, topping out at 95 mph.

“They’re feeling really good,” Martinez said. “We hope that continues.”

This session came four days after both right-handers pitched their first simulated games at the club’s spring training complex. They’ll now shift to a standard, five-game schedule between outings, further evidence they are transitioning from rehab mode to preparation mode.

Both Strasburg and Ross still need time to build their arms back up. They’re essentially now treating this final stage of rehab as if they were in spring training, with no significant restrictions due to their prior injuries.

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Reduction in strikeouts may be Bell's biggest improvement

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There are any number of ways to articulate how well Josh Bell has hit for the Nationals so far this season. The .342 batting average is an obvious one, as is the .434 on-base percentage. Each ranks third among all qualifying National League hitters.

There’s another, less obvious way to underscore Bell’s success to date: His lack of strikeouts.

Consider that the 29-year-old first baseman has struck out only 15 times in 138 plate appearances so far this season. Only four qualifying NL hitters have struck out fewer times, and they’re all contact-happy middle infielders: Jose Iglesias, Miguel Rojas, Nico Hoerner and Jeff McNeil.

Bell? He’s one of the most intimidating physical presences in the batter’s box in the majors, a 261-pound slugger who seems to want to hit the ball as hard as he can every time he swings.

Looks, however, can be deceiving.

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Nats searching for home cooking recipe while reuniting with Astros

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Home field advantage is sometimes an overused cliché in sports. How much a home crowd affects the actual outcome of a game is hard to quantify.

But baseball can be separated from other major sports in that all ballparks have different dimensions. And with 81 games over the course of a regular season, major league ballplayers can get used to the way their home field plays.

The way the outfield fence curves. The way the foul line walls angle. The way the wind blows in and the sun shines.

Even though it’s not always the case, you would figure most teams would have more success at home than on the road.

Not these 2022 Nationals, now a little over a month into their season.

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More sloppy play leads to another home loss for Nats (updated)

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Thursday’s afternoon series finale against the Mets gave the Nationals a chance to win their first home series of the 2022 season. Coming into the game, they were 0-3-1 in series taking place at Nationals Park.

Although this game started much like Wednesday’s affair, with the Mets jumping out to an early lead in the first inning, this time the Nats could not pull off a comeback.

The inability to get deep into the game by the starting pitcher and horrendous baserunning by the offense resulted in a 4-1 loss to the Mets in front of 21,213 fans still waiting to witness a series win.

This game was won and lost, first and foremost, on the mound. Nationals starter Joan Adon did not throw strikes. Mets starter Taijuan Walker did.

“​​I felt a little weird," Adon said after the game, via team interpreter Octavio Martinez. "But I mean, that's part of how things go sometimes.”

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Martinez expects Escobar to return Friday, Sanchez to make next start

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As the Nationals look to win their first home series of the 2022 season, they will once again be without shortstop Alcides Escobar, who will miss his third straight game.

Escobar was a late scratch from the starting lineup before Tuesday’s series opener against the Mets. After the game it was revealed he was dealing with an infection under the nail of his left index finger.

The timing of the infection was unfortunate for the veteran infielder. After a slow start to the season in which he was batting only .127 over his first 17 games, Escobar has slashed .440/.482/.560 with a 1.042 OPS over his last seven outings, going 11-for-25 with three runs scored, a double, a triple, a walk and a hit-by-pitch. However, his struggles in the field continued as he committed four errors over that seven-game span.

The 35-year-old tried to convince manager Davey Martinez he could swing the bat without using the affected finger (a la Trea Turner from a couple of years ago), but the skipper didn’t want to risk it.

Doctors removed fluid from the finger on Wednesday, but it remained sore, keeping Escobar out of the lineup for the Nats’ 8-3 win. He then woke up Thursday morning feeling a lot better, with Martinez expecting the shortstop to return for Friday’s series opener against the Astros after one more off-day.

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Game 33 lineups: Nats vs. Mets

Dee Strange-Gordon Red

Almost halfway through this six-game homestand, the Nationals need to win this afternoon to earn a series victory against the Mets before the Astros come to town this weekend.

In the four home series before this one, the Nationals went 0-3-1, with the one tie coming in a four-game series three weeks ago in which they won the first two games against the Diamondbacks before dropping the last two.

Joan Adon looks to give the Nats an opportunity to win just their fifth home game of the season. The 23-year-old right-hander is 1-5 with a 6.99 ERA and coming off an outing in which he struck out a season-high six batters against the Angels. 

Adon faced this Mets squad in his season debut on April 9, giving up four runs on four hits and four walks while striking out three over 4 1/3 innings in a 5-0 loss.

Right-hander Taijuan Walker makes his fourth start for the Mets this season and first that won’t come against the Phillies. The 29-year-old is 0-0 with a 4.91 ERA over 11 innings in his three outings against Philadelphia. The Mets went 1-2 in those games, but the one victory came a week ago after Walker gave up seven runs (six earned) and nine hits in just four innings only to watch the Phillies bullpen completely implode while giving up seven runs in the ninth for an 8-7 Mets win.

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Nats bounce right back in first, cruise to win over Mets

Aaron Sanchez throw white

If you turned off tonight’s game after four batters, disgusted by what you saw from the Nationals from a pitching and defense perspective, well, you certainly were justified in being disgusted.

You also wound up missing quite the turnaround by the home club, which managed to come all the way back (and then some) before the first inning even ended.

Yep, after surrendering three runs to the Mets in the top of the first, the Nationals stormed back to score five in the bottom of the inning, then three more in the bottom of the second to take an 8-3 lead that would hold up for the rest of the night.

It was an unexpected, but welcome, comeback in rapid fashion for the Nats, who in the process snapped a nine-game home losing streak that stretched all the way back to April 19, when they eked out a 1-0 win over the Diamondbacks.

"We kept everybody together, we kept the energy," right fielder Juan Soto said. "It always feels good winning games like that and coming from behind. We showed what we have, and it feels great."

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Strasburg, Ross throw simulated games; Escobar out again

Stephen Strasburg throwing blue home

Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross each made it through the first simulated games of their rehab programs strong and are prepared to go through that drill again this weekend.

Strasburg and Ross pitched in those game situations Monday at the Nationals’ spring training complex in West Palm Beach, Fla. Davey Martinez didn’t have details on the number of innings or pitches each threw, but the manager had previously said they were scheduled for two innings a piece.

“What I got was: They both felt good,” Martinez said, relaying information he received from the organization’s medical staff. “So that’s good.”

This was a key step for both right-handers in their return from injury-plagued 2021 seasons. Strasburg, who had thoracic outlet surgery last July, and Ross, who was shut down last summer with a partially torn elbow ligament and then had surgery in March to remove a bone spur, had previously only thrown live batting practice.

The simulated game allowed both righties to pitch in a situation that more closely resembles a real game. Facing teammates who are also rehabbing in Florida, they would typically throw about 15 pitches per “inning,” then return to the dugout to rest for 10-15 minutes before taking the mound for their second “inning” of work.

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Game 32 lineups: Nats vs. Mets

Aaron Sanchez throw city connect

The Nationals have been playing better baseball, getting much better starting pitching. That hasn’t necessarily translated into a lot of wins, though. After going 3-1 to start their recent West Coast trip, they’ve gone 1-5 since entering tonight’s game against the Mets.

Aaron Sanchez gets the ball for his fourth start as a member of the rotation. All three previous outings have come against National League West opponents (the Giants twice, the Rockies once). Sanchez has his work cut for him in a Mets lineup that ranks first in the league in hits and on-base percentage and fourth in runs scored and OPS.

The Nats also have their work cut out facing right-hander Tylor Megill, who has been surprisingly dominant so far. Megill, you’ll remember, was the emergency opening day starter after both Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer were unavailable, and he proceeded to shut them out over five innings.

Alcides Escobar remains out after being scratched from last night's lineup with an infection under his left pointer finger nail. Dee Strange-Gordon is back playing shortstop and batting eighth.

NEW YORK METS at WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Where: Nationals Park
Gametime: 7:05 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN, MLB.tv
Radio: The Team 980, MLB.com
Weather: Mostly cloudy, 66 degrees, wind 9 mph in from right field

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Nats hope Anaheim outing boosts Finnegan's confidence

Kyle Finnegan throw gray Mothers Day cap

If not for one ill-fated moment involving his bullpen mate in the bottom of the ninth Sunday afternoon in Anaheim, Kyle Finnegan might well have been the biggest story to come out of what would’ve been an impressive Nationals victory over the Angels.

It got lost in the shuffle when Tanner Rainey gave up the game-tying double to Shohei Ohtani and game-winning single to Anthony Rendon moments later, but Finnegan’s performance two innings earlier was the most dominant for any member of the Nats pitching staff this season and arguably would stack up with any single inning thrown by any major leaguer in 2022.

Tasked with protecting a 4-2 lead against the top of the Angels lineup, Finnegan allowed a leadoff single to Taylor Ward but then struck out Mike Trout, Ohtani and Rendon in succession, each on fastballs registering 96-97 mph.

For Finnegan, who had been scored upon in each of his three previous outings during the club’s West Coast trip, this provided a major boost of confidence.

“To have success against those guys, it’s reassuring,” the right-hander said prior to Tuesday’s game against the Mets. “Your stuff plays. You get Mike Trout out and Shohei Ohtani out and Anthony Rendon out, you’re doing something right. That was big for me as a confidence boost.”

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