Bullpen gives up eight to ruin Rogers’ strong start (updated)

The baseball that was displayed for 3 hours and 53 minutes this afternoon at Nationals Park was not of a caliber many in the announced crowd of 16,309 could have found satisfactory. The Nationals and Marlins took turns trying to out-underperform each other, from the Nats’ inability to produce with runners in scoring position to the Marlins’ inability to play clean defense to both bullpens’ inability to protect leads. (Or, in Miami’s case, throw strikes with the bases loaded.)

It all made for a long, sweaty, exhausting afternoon of baseball between the two clubs battling for fourth and fifth places in the National League East, ultimately won by Marlins by an 8-6 count that didn’t fully convey the path that was required to get there.

In a summer full of disheartening losses by the Nationals, this one must rank near the top. Yes, there were some positive developments, from another strong start by Josh Rogers to Alcides Escobar’s four hits and defensive wizardry at shortstop to Josh Bell’s team-leading 27th homer of the season.

But there was a whole lot to grumble about, and most of it involved the bullpen.

Thumbnail image for Finnegan-Delivers-Blue-Home-Sidebar.jpgAfter pulling Rogers for a pinch-hitter despite five innings of one-hit ball on 73 pitches, manager Davey Martinez needed his relief corps to deliver 12 outs. He wound up needing to summon five of them to do that, and collectively they allowed eight runs on 10 hits, two walks and three home runs, the last of them a two-run blast by Jesús Sánchez off Kyle Finnegan to complete a four-run rally in the top of the ninth.

“I think they just made a few bad pitches, elevated pitches, and guys put good swings on them,” Martinez said in his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “A couple leadoff walks hurt us. They’re going to hit. I talk to them all the time about walking that leadoff hitter. Nothing good comes out of that.”

Which is exactly what happened to Finnegan, who was asked to deliver a four-out save after the rest of the bullpen couldn’t get the game into the ninth. Though he got through the eighth quickly, the ninth quickly turned into a disaster for him.

A leadoff walk was followed by an infield single, which was followed by an RBI single, which was followed by a fielder’s choice, which was followed by a sharp grounder to short that might’ve set up a game-ending double play if the Nationals infield wasn’t playing in. And because of that, the game was tied again. Until Sánchez blasted his second homer of the day moments later.

“The leadoff walk hurts there,” said Finnegan, who blew his third save in 12 attempts. “Giving them a free baserunner to start the inning, and then I got, I think, four ground balls in a row after that. A little tough luck, a little of them finding the hole. ... The ground balls didn’t bounce my way. And then you face that many guys in one inning, eventually they’re going to get you. And Sánchez got me there.”

On an unseasonably sweaty, 86-degree mid-September afternoon, both clubs sent a left-hander named Rogers to the mound to start the game. That’s the only thing they had in common with each other.

The Marlins’ Trevor Rogers is a 23-year-old first-round pick from 2018 who made the All-Star team as a rookie and might be a candidate for National League Rookie of the Year. The Nationals’ Josh Rogers is a 27-year-old 11th-round pick from 2015 who was released from the Orioles’ Triple-A roster this summer.

On this day, the less-accomplished of the two performed best.

Josh Rogers rocked, kicked and fired his way through five scoreless innings of one-hit ball, the lone blemish a third-inning single by none other than his counterpart. He walked one, struck out six and walked off the mound after the top of the fifth with a modest pitch count of 73.

“I felt really good,” he said. “I got the slider going a little bit early today. Felt really good, attacked the zone and just turned over the lineup and got us back in the dugout to hit.”

That should have put Rogers in line to return for the sixth, but the Nationals lineup’s struggles made that less of a clear-cut decision for Martinez. Despite rapping out nine hits through five innings, the Nats had just two runs on the board by the time Rogers’ spot in the order came up with two out and the bases loaded.

So Martinez sent his best pinch-hitter, Andrew Stevenson, to the plate to bat for Rogers and hoped to add to the lead. But when Stevenson struck out, the score remained 2-0, Rogers was out of the game, the Nationals were 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position and Martinez now needed to get 12 outs from his bullpen.

“With the day off tomorrow, we had everybody available but (Austin) Voth,” Martinez said. “So I thought our bullpen would be in pretty good shape. I wanted to get some more runs on the board. It didn’t happen. Josh gave us a good five innings. I think he probably only had one more inning in him. We wanted to get more runs on the board.”

But as too often has been the case this season, four clean innings from this bullpen proved far too difficult a challenge. Alberto Baldonado surrendered a two-run homer in the sixth to tie the game and leave Rogers with no decision. Then after his teammates retook the lead in the bottom of the sixth, Mason Thompson gave up the tying run (charged to Sam Clay) on Miguel Rojas’ comebacker off his leg. A spectacular play by Escobar to turn a 3-6-3 double play from the seat of his pants prevented any more damage, but this game was far from over.

The Nationals re-took the lead in the bottom of the seventh with a pair of bases-loaded walks - stunningly the fourth and fifth issued by Marlins pitchers in the last 24 hours - but then Wander Suero immediately gave up a homer on his first pitch of the top of the eighth. And before the inning could end, Martinez was summoning Finnegan to bail everybody out.

On this day, he couldn’t do it.

“Just one of those days for Finnegan,” Martinez said. “Finnegan has done unbelievable for us all year long. He’ll be back out there Friday.”

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