Bullpen can’t finish the job this time, Nats lose 5-3 (updated)

Having already used up four young relievers to win Friday’s game by the slimmest of margins, Nationals manager Davey Martinez had little choice but to turn to another group tonight after getting a solid start from Sean Nolin, hoping these bullpen arms could likewise protect a one-run lead against the Mets.

That proved too tall a task for Ryne Harper and Mason Thompson, who combined to allow three runs during the decisive bottom of the seventh that sealed the Nats’ fate in a 5-3 loss at Citi Field.

Harper set the table, allowing a leadoff single to Jeff McNeil before plunking Kevin Pillar in the back with a curveball. That prompted Martinez to summon Thompson to face Michael Conforto, hoping the tall righty’s strong numbers against left-handed hitters (a .211 batting average and .558 OPS) would make for a better matchup.

Thumbnail image for Mason Thompson throw white sidebar.jpgMartinez barely got a chance to see how it would play out, because Conforto drove Thompson’s first-pitch sinker deep to left-center for a three-run homer that turned the Nationals’ one-run lead into a two-run deficit.

“I think he wanted to get it down, and I think he wanted to throw it more out of the zone,” Martinez said in his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “But in that situation, Conforto’s coming off the bench swinging. You want to make a pitcher’s pitch.”

It made for a frustrating sequence, not to mention a complete flipping of the script from Friday night, when the quartet of Andres Machado, Sam Clay, Kyle McGowin and Kyle Finnegan combined for four scoreless innings to preserve a 2-1 victory.

A nearly identical story from Friday was playing out tonight, with Nolin doing like Paolo Espino did and providing an effective start. But with one on and one out in the sixth, Martinez turned to his bullpen and got an encouraging escape act from Patrick Murphy, who struck out Pete Alonso on a curveball before getting Javy Báez to ground out on a fastball.

Next up, though, was Harper, given a rare chance to pitch in a high-leverage spot. And when the right-hander got into a jam, it was Thompson’s turn to try to get out of it.

“We had some guys down today,” Martinez said, explaining why Friday’s relievers weren’t used in this one. “I thought I would give (Thompson) a chance to get a ground ball. He’s got a good sinker. Just one bad pitch. Other than that, I thought he threw the ball really well after that.”

Once Conforto’s blast landed in the left field stands, the Nationals were left to try to rally late against the Mets bullpen. They would, as always, bring the tying run to the plate in the ninth, but Ryan Zimmerman grounded out and Lane Thomas struck out looking to end the game.

Just as they did Friday night, the Nationals jumped out to a 2-0 lead, scoring both runs in rapid succession. This time, it was Thomas delivering a two-out RBI double to right-center to score Luis García in the top of the second, then scoring himself moments later on Alcides Escobar’s single to right.

Thomas and Escobar make for an unlikely 1-2 punch atop the Nationals lineup, but there’s no disputing the success they’ve enjoyed in those roles. Each enjoyed another multi-hit game tonight, with Thomas doubling twice and Escobar extending his hitting streak to 10 games. (Escobar also produced two of the team’s best defensive plays of the season at shortstop.)

“I just feel very comfortable at home plate right now,” Escobar, now batting .288 on the season, said through interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I’m consistently hitting the ball well. I just hope to continue the hitting streak.”

Unable to add to the early output against starter Marcus Stroman, the Nats did finally score again in the seventh against the Mets bullpen. Singles by Riley Adams and Escobar put runners on the corners and gave Juan Soto a chance to drive in the go-ahead run. Turns out Soto didn’t need to swing his bat to get the runner home, because Adams scampered in from third when Trevor May spiked a changeup, the ball skipping to the backstop.

“Pitchers tend to not give in to Juan,” Martinez said. “They tried to make pitches, and it was a situation where he didn’t want to throw the ball over the plate. He threw it down, and it was a wild pitch and we were able to score. That’s just Juan being Juan. He knows the strike zone well, and he’s not going to chase.”

Nolin, who grew up on nearby Long Island competing against Stroman as kids, put together the best of his three starts since the Nationals called him up earlier this month. The left-hander reached the sixth inning for the first time, allowed only two runs for the first time and struck out six for the first time in his major league career.

Facing a Mets lineup that racked up four runs and eight hits against him in only three innings on Aug. 12, Nolin was much more in control this time. He retired the first six batters he faced, striking out three. He averaged only 11 pitches per inning through the fourth.

“Definitely controlling the pitches in the right spots, kind of tunneling different pitches with each other,” he said when asked what worked well tonight. “And not being afraid to get hit. Let them put it in play. Pitch to contact. There might’ve been a few hard-hit ones, but that happens.”

Nolin’s two real mistakes happened to come against the same batter: Kevin Pillar. He left a changeup over the plate in the third and watched Pillar homer to left. Then moments after bouncing a 58-mph curveball to him in the fifth, Nolin left a 92-mph fastball over the plate and watched Pillar homer again.

Given the situation, the Nationals couldn’t have asked for much more from him.

“We talked earlier today about utilizing all of his pitches,” Martinez said. “He threw some really good changeups, some breaking balls, a real slow eephus breaking ball a couple times, and utilized his fastball when he needed to. I thought he threw the ball a lot better than I saw in his last outing.”

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