Untested bullpen blasted in blowout at Wrigley (updated)

CHICAGO – Davey Martinez knew it was probably going to come to this tonight. With Mason Thompson and Kyle Finnegan having both pitched 1 1/3 innings in order to seal Monday night’s win over the Cubs, the Nationals manager was going to have to entrust some high-leverage situations to young, untested relievers in this game.

So it was no surprise when the bullpen door underneath the right field bleachers opened up in the sixth and seventh innings of a tight ballgame and out trotted Amos Willingham and Jose A. Ferrer. Sadly, it may not have surprised many when those two rookies – and then journeyman Paolo Espino – imploded before everyone's eyes, combining to allow an astounding 14 runs and turn a tight ballgame into a farcical, 17-3 loss.

This is the current state of the Nationals bullpen. With Hunter Harvey (elbow strain) and Carl Edwards Jr. (shoulder inflammation) on the injured list, Martinez has only two semi-proven late-inning options in Thompson and Finnegan. And when he needed those two to record the final eight outs of Monday’s 7-5 win, he left himself with no choice but to see how these newcomers might handle a big moment.

It did not go well.

Willingham, a 2019 17th round pick who hadn’t pitched above Single-A before this season, got out of a sixth-inning jam but did not retire any of the four batters he faced in the seventh. Patrick Wisdom homered to open that inning, and three singles followed before Martinez pulled the 24-year-old.

"I feel like there was an opportunity for me to go out and prove myself today," Willingham said. "I got out of the first inning clean. That Wisdom at-bat, it's going to sit with me for a long time. I'm probably not going to sleep a whole lot tonight. Just because that kind of changed the whole direction of the game. They scored, what, (14) unanswered runs after that? Just come back, learn from it and be ready to go the next time."

Next up was Ferrer, who signed out of the Dominican Republic as a 17-year-old in 2017 and hadn’t pitched above Double-A prior to this season. The rookie left-hander immediately surrendered an RBI double and ultimately departed having allowed two inherited runners to score, plus two more charged to him.

The game now out of hand, Martinez turned to veteran long man Espino to finish things out. Espino, though, couldn't even record three outs. He gave up eight more runs of his own, completing a brutal stretch that saw 21 of Chicago's final 28 batters reach base.

"They've got to learn," Martinez said of the two rookie relievers. "They've got to learn when you're out there in those situations, you've got to make pitches. You've got to hit your location. You've got to work ahead. It's going to be a process, but they're going to learn. They've got to learn. They've both got good stuff. It's just a matter of continuing to work with them and get them out there."

Eons earlier, the Nationals jumped out to a quick lead in the top of the first, just as they did Monday. And as they did the previous night, they did so with a home run to left field. Lane Thomas didn’t have anyone on base in front of him like Jeimer Candelario did, but his solo blast landed 10 rows higher up the bleachers than Candelario’s did for a 1-0 lead.

It was merely the latest example of early production from Thomas, who now sports a .391 batting average and .667 slugging percentage in the first inning this season. Four of his 15 homers have come in the opening frame.

And the Nats didn’t stop there. They scored two more runs in the top of the second, this time off a clutch hit by a guy who hasn’t had many of those this season.

Corey Dickerson entered the day with a .239/.275/.345 slash line and a 74 OPS-plus that is better than only three players who have donned a curly W helmet this season: Jeter Downs, Jake Alu and Derek Hill. (None survived for long in D.C.) His two-run single, though, not only extended the Nationals’ lead to 3-0, it gave Dickerson only his seventh hit in 30 at-bats with runners in scoring position.

Unable to do any more damage against Cubs starter Jameson Taillon, the Nats were left to try to make that three-run lead hold up. They could not do that.

Patrick Corbin was effective for five innings, allowing only one run on three hits during that opening span. But on a night when his team needed both quality and length from their starter to compensate for a lack of reliable bullpen arms, Corbin faltered late.

Seiya Suzuki blasted a sixth-inning slider to the last row of the left field bleachers. Ian Happ and Cody Bellinger followed with back-to-back infield singles, Bellinger’s hit proving especially costly because second baseman Luis García (despite making a nice diving catch of the ball to his right) tried to make a difficult throw from his knees and misfired, allowing the tying run to score.

"I felt pretty good; I thought the ball was coming out pretty good; my slider was good," Corbin said. "It's just unfortunate how things went down later in that game."

That’s as far as Martinez was willing to let his starter go. Corbin was pulled with a pitch count of 99, and an incredibly untested set of relievers was summoned to try to keep this game close.

The ensuing results suggested those relievers may not get many more opportunities, though their manager insisted he wouldn't make any rash decisions based on one game, ugly as it was.

"They're going to get another opportunity," Martinez said. "Many more opportunities. Hopefully they bounce back and learn from today."

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