Already shorthanded, Nationals drop home opener after thin bullpen snaps

Already shorthanded, Nationals drop home opener after thin bullpen snaps

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

Here was a quandary most managers typically don’t face in Game 4 of a season: A tie game in the eighth inning. A runner in scoring position. And three of the team’s best relievers unavailable. That’s where Dave Martinez found himself in on a chilly Monday afternoon at Nationals Park.

Catcher Riley Adams had just hit a game-tying home run in the bottom of the seventh, giving the sellout crowd of 40,405 something to cheer about during Washington’s home opener. But there were two innings to be played. And Kyle Finnegan and Hunter Harvey were not walking through the bullpen door in an eventual 8-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Martinez ambled out of the dugout to pull lefty Robert Garcia in favor of righty Matt Barnes with three righties among the Pirates’ next four batters. The result was damaging: an RBI double, a flyout, an RBI double and an RBI single. Just like that, the Nationals’ momentum was zapped.

“It’s a long season, and obviously a handful of things haven’t started the way we want to,” Barnes said. “But we got 158 games left to go. Hiccups like this are going to happen. Clean them up and work on being better.”

The Nationals returned from their season-opening three-game trip hoping for a spark. In Sunday’s 6-5 loss to the Cincinnati Reds, Finnegan blew a save by allowing back-to-back homers. He was pitching in his second straight game, as Harvey had just done before he entered. So neither could go Monday. And Jordan Weems was sick, so Martinez was down to just five bullpen arms.

“Trying to match up the best we can,” Martinez said. “If Matt gets the ball up in that situation, it would’ve been a different situation. The boys fought back. We just didn’t have enough.”

Martinez hoped starting pitcher MacKenzie Gore could set the tone. The potential future ace was strategically picked to pitch the home opener after Josiah Gray opened the season for the Nationals in Cincinnati. Their faces are plastered on the parking garage walls in center field, signaling their importance to the team’s rebuild.

The past was still on display, though. Pirates center fielder and former National Michael A. Taylor received a long ovation. So did Gerardo Parra and Sean Doolittle, now members of the Nationals’ coaching staff. Before the game, franchise icon Ryan Zimmerman walked past Trey Lipscomb — who was called up Saturday to be the team’s third baseman.

And in the second inning, Taylor — after another standing ovation — stared down Gore with runners on the corners. To that point, Gore wasn’t consistently attacking the strike zone. He threw 12 strikes in a 23-pitch first inning. The second inning wasn’t any better. Taylor hit a sacrifice fly and Bryan Reynolds grounded out to tack on another run to give the Pirates an early 2-0 lead.

Gore retired nine batters in a row from the end of the second until there was one out in the fifth. On display was a young pitcher showing both his potential and his struggles. Gore threw 47 pitches through the first two innings and landed just five of his 12 first pitches for strikes. The next three innings, Gore threw 45 pitches and seven of his 11 first pitches were strikes.

Gore mixed his secondary pitches effectively, a point of emphasis during the offseason. He threw 18 sliders, 17 curveballs and 17 change-ups to go along with his 49 fastballs. His day ended in the sixth with a perfectly placed curveball that sent Oneil Cruz flailing, but Gore did leave a runner on second that scored against Derek Law.

“I thought the stuff was good,” Gore said. “I didn’t execute at times. … But as a whole, we limited the damage for the most part.”

A shuffled lineup provided him little run support. Martinez used Adams at catcher and Keibert Ruiz as the designated hitter. Victor Robles was in center field. Joey Meneses played first, giving Joey Gallo a day off. And in the first inning, Martinez made an unexpected change — Eddie Rosario replaced Jesse Winker, who exited after the first inning because he was sick.

The results were weak contact early. Pirates starter Marco Gonzales threw seven pitches in the first inning. In three of the first four innings, Gonzales threw 14 pitches or fewer. Lane Thomas’s RBI single in the third was the lone run in the first six innings for the Nationals, who finished 2 for 10 with runners in scoring position.

Then came Adams’s home run. CJ Abrams added an RBI single in the ninth, but the Nationals were out of the game by that point. The bullpen, a group expected to be the team’s strength, couldn’t keep the game in striking distance. Barnes, who has 47 career saves, and former closer Tanner Rainey each allowed two runs.

Rainey, whose fastball velocity was nearly 3 mph below his average, allowed a two-run double to Reynolds in the ninth. He threw 40 pitches that inning and kept his eyes focused on home plate. No one was warming up to take his place.

“I think it’s a matter of time with him,” Martinez said. “He hasn’t pitched in a long time. But we got to use him. He’s part of that bullpen. I think he’s going to be better.”

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