What went right this weekend before it went horribly wrong

They would’ve come home flying high, having just won the season’s opening series on the road against a team with October aspirations, and having done it on the backs of some of their most important young players.

They would’ve taken the field at Nationals Park to a thunderous roar from a large crowd excited to welcome them home for the first time in 2024, enthusiasm soaring after such an uplifting start to the year.

They would’ve been the proud owners of a winning record for the first time since – get this – July 1, 2021, a night that saw a Nationals team loaded with star power fall to 40-39 after a loss to the Dodgers in which emergency second baseman Alex Avila strained not one but both of his calves. By month’s end, they would trade Max Scherzer, Trea Turner and a host of other veterans in the first act of a long and painful roster rebuild.

The Nats won’t take the field with a winning record today, though. They’re 1-2, not 2-1, after Kyle Finnegan’s swift and painful, bottom-of-the-ninth meltdown late Sunday afternoon in Cincinnati sapped all the goodwill out of the clubhouse and left a dejected ballclub to quietly shower, dress and head to the airport.

But does that loss, agonizing as it was, really change the overall state of the Nationals on this date? Does a blown save on March 31, ghastly as it was, erase everything else that preceded it?

In the standings, yes it does. Had Finnegan merely made one more quality pitch, the Nats would be 2-1 and tied with the Braves atop the National League East at this very early juncture. Not a bad place to reside, especially with the Mets (0-3) and Marlins (0-4) getting swept in their opening series.

But at moments like this, it’s helpful to take a deep breath, take a step or two back and try to look at the big picture. And the big picture from the opening weekend was quite encouraging.

It wasn’t perfect, not by any stretch. The Nationals didn’t get a quality start, didn’t even get anything more than a five-inning start out of Josiah Gray, Patrick Corbin or Jake Irvin. They struggled to hit with runners in scoring position (4-for-21). Joey Gallo went 0 for the weekend. Their top two relievers (Finnegan and Harvey) each experienced a ragged inning of work.

But focus on what the young building-block players did and try not to smile over that.

CJ Abrams picked up right where he left off late last season. He homered. He tripled. He drew walks. He stole bases. He played crisp defense. He looked every bit the part of an All-Star shortstop.

Keibert Ruiz did everything he was supposed to do, as well. He continued his knack for delivering game-changing homers in the late innings. And his pitch-framing and throws to second base were noticeably better than they were a year ago.

And Trey Lipscomb enjoyed about as good a two-day debut as anyone could’ve imagined when the 23-year-old was called up from Triple-A Rochester after Nick Senzel broke his thumb during pregame drills Thursday. He put together professional at-bats, launched his first career homer and played sparkling defense at third base.

These are the performances that matter most. These are the guys who will determine whether the 2024 season is a major stepping stone for an organization trying to return to contender status, or whether this rebuild still has a ways to go.

There are others who will prove just as important in that process. MacKenzie Gore, who makes his season debut this afternoon (weather permitting). Cade Cavalli, on track to return from Tommy John surgery in June. James Wood (who is off to a good start at Triple-A). Maybe Dylan Crews, Robert Hassell III and Brady House before season’s end.

None of that changed during the three-batter sequence that ruined Sunday’s game. Sure, one more out from Finnegan would’ve made the trip home sweeter and created a more electric setting for today’s home opener.

But the Nationals who take the field today are the same Nationals who held a 5-3 lead with two outs and nobody on in the bottom of the ninth Sunday. They believe they’re ready to take the next step as a franchise and win more games this year than they did last year.

Even if one guy couldn’t finish the job Sunday.

Game 4 lineups: Nats vs. Pirates
Finnegan's ninth-inning meltdown spoils Nats' pote...

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