The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Paolo Espino’s reliability endures, but Nats’ pitcher remains winless

Braves 8, Nationals 2

Paolo Espino allowed four runs on five hits in five innings Tuesday against the Braves. He remains winless. (Jess Rapfogel/AP)

More significant than what Paolo Espino did on the mound Tuesday night — five innings, four earned runs, a performance good for the wrong end of an 8-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves — was why he started again in the first place.

In the home stretch of this season, the Washington Nationals have way more rotation questions than answers. Josiah Gray will pitch what could be his final outing of the year Wednesday, though the Nationals keep pushing him despite a month-long insistence to limit his September innings. After that, Aníbal Sánchez, Erick Fedde and Cory Abbott are the only definitive options for four in three days against the Philadelphia Phillies, then a final three-game series with the New York Mets.

Sean Doolittle is hoping for a ‘do-over’ with the Nationals

Patrick Corbin is dealing with back spasms. MacKenzie Gore, fresh off a rough rehab appearance with Class AAA Rochester, will debut for the Nationals either in the next week or in April. Cade Cavalli, 4⅓ major league innings to his name, has only thrown lightly in his recovery from shoulder inflammation.

So that’s how Espino, 35, wound up with his 18th start of the season. Flexibility born of uncertainty has defined his entire time with the Nationals (53-101). And after he retired the first 10 batters he faced Tuesday — and after Atlanta beat him with Michael Harris II’s two-run triple in the fourth and solo homers in the fifth from Orlando Arcia and Ronald Acuña Jr. — the Braves tacked on against Washington’s bullpen and shaky defense.

Jordan Weems was burned on Eddie Rosario’s two-run double in the sixth, which came after César Hernández couldn’t retire William Contreras on a routine grounder to the right side, delaying his throw just long enough for Contreras to beat it by a step. In the seventh, Acuña punched his second homer of the night, rocking a solo shot off Mason Thompson. Then in the eighth, CJ Abrams’s error allowed Harris to reach before he scored on Erasmo Ramírez’s wild pitch with two outs.

“I mean, we gave them six extra outs,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “We played two extra innings on defense.”

The Nationals scored on the first of Luke Voit’s two doubles and a solo homer by Victor Robles. With the Mets losing to the Marlins, the Braves (97-58) pulled into a tie with the Mets atop the National League East. And while Espino (0-8) is now 4⅔ innings away from setting the record for most in a season without a win, the Nationals, at the very least, know what they’ll get with the right-handed journeyman.

Espino’s numbers in 2021: 109⅔ innings, 4.27 ERA, 19 homers, 108 hits, 25 walks, 92 strikeouts.

Espino’s numbers in 2022: 113 innings, 4.30 ERA, 21 homers, 126 hits, 22 walks, 92 strikeouts.

“Kudos to him, he’s been fun to watch, cause I still feel like he’s had a really successful season, even if his numbers might say something else, or wins and losses,” catcher Tres Barrera said. “But I know that he has a lot of respect from everybody on this team.”

Could Gore start for the Nationals in 2022? On Tuesday afternoon, Martinez seemed less confident than he did with previous answers to the same question. This version — “I think he can, but I want to make sure he throws his bullpen” — is predicated on an extended bullpen session that could total between 45 and 50 pitches. In theory, Gore lines up for a doubleheader with the Phillies on Saturday, which is convenient because Washington is already short on arms for those games. But his participation in the twin bill is far from a guarantee.

The latest on Cavalli? “He threw the other day, and he’s supposed to go out there and play catch again today,” Martinez said before his club fell to Atlanta again. “... If he can finish up continuing to throw and build him and everything feels good, I feel pretty good going into this winter and getting ready for spring training.”

Is Nelson Cruz out for the season? While Martinez didn’t officially shut down Cruz, the outlook isn’t promising. Cruz, 42, is still dealing with the left eye inflammation that has sidelined him for the past two weeks. He has taken batting practice, felt fine, then had blurry vision return, making Martinez extra cautious. So if Cruz is finished for the year, his tenure here will include 10 homers, a team-best 64 RBI and a disappointing on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .651.

Cruz signed a one-year, $15 million deal in the spring, with the Nationals hoping he could be flipped at the deadline for at least one prospect. That plan just never came to fruition.