Weems' struggles force Finnegan into emergency save situation

Davey Martinez found himself in a most unusual, and most comforting, scenario Sunday afternoon. His Nationals entered the ninth inning leading the Braves by six runs, one day after they had beaten the Braves by four runs.

Here was a second straight opportunity to win a ballgame without needing to summon either of the team’s top two relievers: Hunter Harvey and Kyle Finnegan. That hasn’t happened much this season for a team that typically plays low-scoring, tight contests.

“I really wanted to give (Finnegan) and Harvey another day,” Martinez said, realizing with an off-day prior to the Nats’ series opener in Detroit tonight, this was a chance to let those two right-handers enjoy some real rest for a change.

So with his team leading 8-2, Martinez sent Jordan Weems to the mound for the top of the ninth. He sent word to let Finnegan know to be ready to spring into action if need be, but the hope was that it would never come to that.

Two batters later, the bullpen phone was ringing after Weems allowed a leadoff single to Michael Harris II followed by a walk of Orlando Arcia. And before Finnegan could even throw his first warmup toss, Weems had allowed a three-run homer to Jarred Kelenic. Suddenly, this was an 8-5 game with nobody out, the top of the Atlanta lineup coming up and an emergency brewing.

Sean Doolittle, filling in for Jim Hickey as pitching coach for the weekend, made a mound visit not so much to set Weems straight but to buy a few seconds for Finnegan to get warm. And when Ozzie Albies promptly singled to right to continue the rally, it was now Martinez walking to the mound and signaling for his closer.

Finnegan, to his credit, never let things get any more stressful once he entered. He retired the heart of the Braves lineup in order, getting Austin Riley and Marcell Ozuna to fly out, then striking out Matt Olson to end the game and secure his 18th save in 20 attempts.

“I had him throwing, just playing catch in case things went awry,” Martinez said. “Luckily, he got ready pretty quick. He got three big outs for us, plus the save. And he gets one day off.”

Finnegan – and Harvey and Dylan Floro, for that matter – has been lights out all season, making a case for the first All-Star selection of his career. But the Nationals know they need to be able to rely on other members of their bullpen in situations of consequence.

Martinez has trusted right-handers Derek Law and Jacob Barnes, plus lefty Robert Garcia, in recent weeks. Tanner Rainey, though, has barely been used as he tries to resurrect his career following Tommy John surgery. And Weems, who entered the season as one of the more trusted relievers on the staff, now finds himself near the bottom of the depth chart given his struggles.

“We’ve got to get Weems going,” Martinez said. “When we started this thing, I was counting on him to be the high-leverage, seventh-inning guy. It hasn’t worked out yet, but we’re going to keep working with him and see if we can get him back. We need him. We need all those guys down there.”

Weems did ascend to a prominent role in the bullpen last summer, ultimately becoming the most common seventh-inning arm setting up Harvey and Finnegan. In 22 appearances from late July to early September, he posted a 1.66 ERA while striking out 27 batters in only 21 2/3 innings. And he got off to a good start this season, with only two earned runs allowed in his first 10 games.

But it’s been a downhill stumble for him since. Over his last 16 games, Weems has a 9.77 ERA, allowing 20 runs, with more than two batters on average reaching base per inning pitched. He’s given up multiple runs in four of his last seven appearances.

The difference, Martinez believes, has been mechanical.

“I think he’s got a little bit of an upper-body thing going on, where he’s getting ahead of himself a little bit,” the manager said. “We’re trying to get him to finish down and pull down on his pitches. He’s leaving way too many pitches right over the heart of the plate, and it’s because of a little bit of a mechanics issue.

“We’ll get him right. Today he was throwing in the upper 90s. But when you’re facing good hitters like that, you’ve got to locate better.”

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