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Joey Meneses, the Nats’ 30-year-old rookie, homers again in loss to Cubs

Joey Meneses hit his third home run of the series in the Nationals' 4-2 loss to the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday afternoon. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

CHICAGO — When Juan Soto and Josh Bell were dealt to San Diego at the trade deadline, the Washington Nationals found themselves with a void in the middle of their lineup. The pivot to a full-on rebuild has brought opportunity for some — including a 30-year-old career minor leaguer who waited 10 years before getting his chance last week, once Bell took his first baseman’s mitt to the Padres.

Joey Meneses, with more than 3,000 at-bats in the minors, has made the most of his chance since the Nationals called him up to play first. He blasted his fourth home run in seven games, a majestic, 422-foot drive in the sixth inning of Wednesday’s contest at Wrigley Field. But his homer couldn’t prevent another late-game collapse; the Chicago Cubs rallied for four runs in the seventh for a 4-2 win, sending Washington (37-76) to its seventh loss in eight games.

After the loss, Meneses was asked if he expected this kind of power output once he reached the majors.

“Not at all,” he said. “I was just going to try to get in there and do the best I could when the opportunity was given to me, and thank God I’ve been taking advantage of it.”

Robert Hassell III knows how Nats fans feel. He still wants a chance.

Meneses has made a handful of stops in his professional baseball career since signing a minor league deal with the Atlanta Braves in 2011. He has played 10 years in the minors and a few extra in the Mexican League. This season with Class AAA Rochester, he hit 20 home runs, power that continues to be on display since he joined the Nationals.

He hit a home run in his debut and added three more in this series — a pinch-hit, two-run shot Monday and a go-ahead, two-run homer Tuesday before his solo shot Wednesday afternoon against the Cubs (45-65).

His blast gave the Nationals a 2-0 lead. Washington grabbed the lead in the third when César Hernández hit a blooper that bounced over the head of a sliding Rafael Ortega in center field. The ball rolled past him, allowing Tres Barrera to score from first base.

Meneses’s recent performance, albeit in a small sample size, could earn him a chance to stick around with the Nationals in some capacity beyond this year. That probably would be in a bench utility role as a first baseman with the ability to play the outfield, though it’s not his ideal position. Still, with a struggling offense post-trade deadline, Meneses is likely to remain in the heart of the order.

“I feel like, up here, you have a little bit more energy and more motivation obviously,” Meneses said. “But I feel that I’ve been doing it [in the minors] all year long, and hopefully I continue to do it.”

How did the Cubs score in the seventh? The outburst started when Nico Hoerner hit a solo shot off Josiah Gray, who leads the major leagues with 29 home runs allowed. Gray hadn’t allowed a run in six innings before the homer and exited after allowing a one-out single to former Nationals catcher Yan Gomes. Gray struck out five over 6⅓ innings and, notably, didn’t walk anyone.

Steve Cishek replaced him and walked P.J. Higgins, the first batter he faced. Nick Madrigal hit a game-tying single; he and Higgins advanced on a throwing error by Victor Robles — an airmail of a throw to the plate.

“Once [Robles] threw it, I watched his reaction — he knew that ball should’ve been down,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “You just got to understand the portion of the game, and that’s something he needs to start learning. You can’t just come up there and fire the ball.”

Robles’s error proved costly when Higgins scored on an Ortega sacrifice fly to give the Cubs the lead. Ian Happ singled to drive in Madrigal, accounting for the final margin.

Why was Luis García scratched? The shortstop experienced right knee soreness before the game and was replaced in the lineup by Ildemaro Vargas, who was initially penciled in at third base. Maikel Franco filled in there.

How close is Erick Fedde to returning? It should be soon. Fedde (right shoulder inflammation) threw an extended bullpen on Tuesday and is scheduled to make a simulated start next week. If all goes well, Martinez hopes to fit Fedde back into the rotation once he comes off the 15-day injured list.

Who was optioned after Wednesday’s game, and what’s the latest on the bullpen? Mason Thompson was sent out. The move sending Thompson to Rochester was made to clear space for left-handed reliever Jake McGee, who will join the team Friday in Washington.

Will Harris suffered a groin injury while rehabbing in Rochester, so he’s likely to miss time. This injury is another setback for Harris, who has pitched in just 28 games since signing a three-year, $24 million deal before the 2020 season. He underwent surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome in June 2021 and right pectoral surgery March 31 but hoped to make his return at the end of the season.

Tyler Clippard is on the 15-day IL with a groin strain but threw two scoreless innings Tuesday and has made three appearances in Rochester. He could rejoin the Nationals’ bullpen soon.

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