These Washington Nationals are a young team, still learning how to win. And they’re experiencing some growing pains — perhaps none more acute than Thursday afternoon on South Capitol Street.
Nationals fans poised to celebrate a series win instead issued a collective groan and looked to their seats. The Padres’ dugout — and their fan contingent behind it — erupted. And the Nationals, after a 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth, swallowed another heartbreaking loss, their third this month via a go-ahead or walk-off homer in the ninth inning.
“This game, you have to play all 27 outs, right?” Manager Dave Martinez said. “But you keep battling. Every moment is a learning moment. It’s a learning curve for us, but they’re learning.”
Before Harvey’s blown save — his fourth of the season — there was a comeback. The Nationals produced seven straight hits in the seventh, turning a 5-1 deficit to a 6-5 lead.
Jeimer Candelario’s double cut the Nationals deficit to three. Runners were on second and third with no one out. Then came the strategy.
Padres Manager Bob Melvin turned to right-hander Nick Martinez, so the Nationals’ Martinez opted to replace righty Stone Garrett with lefty Corey Dickerson, who hit an RBI single to make it 5-3. Dominic Smith followed with an RBI single to make it 5-4, then Alex Call’s bunt resulted in a single and throwing error that scored Dickerson with the tying run.
Martinez again turned to his bench, calling on his switch-hitting catcher Keibert Ruiz to hit for Riley Adams. Melvin brought the infield in to keep the tying run from scoring, but Ruiz rifled a grounder that got through second baseman Jake Cronenworth, and the Nationals led 6-5.
But the Nationals (21-29) also had plenty of opportunities before the seventh. They loaded the bases in the fourth inning, but CJ Abrams grounded out to third base in a three-pitch at-bat. They loaded the bases again in the fifth with one out before Garrett and Smith struck out.
The Nationals dug themselves that four-run deficit by going 1 for 8 with runners in scoring position before the seventh inning; Joey Meneses singled to drive in Lane Thomas in the first inning and give starting Jake Irvin an early cushion.
Irvin entered Thursday’s start looking to recapture some of the momentum he had lost after a strong start to his major league career. He allowed one run over his first two starts, but 12 runs (10 earned) in his next two. His inconsistency attacking the strike zone continued against the Padres.
Irvin allowed a two-run homer in the second inning to Trent Grisham to give the Padres (23-27) a 2-1 lead, but the third inning was by far his worst. He walked Fernando Tatis Jr. and Cronenworth to open the inning before pitching coach Jim Hickey made a mound visit.
But he then walked Juan Soto — the second of the four free passes the former Nationals star was given Thursday — to load the bases. Irvin had thrown seven straight balls and was down in the count 3-0 to Xander Bogaerts before he threw a strike, drawing sarcastic cheers from the home crowd.
But Irvin rallied to get Bogaerts to pop out to second base. Then Matt Carpenter hit into a double play, a nifty play started by Smith that helped Irvin escape the inning.
Irvin’s outing, though, lasted only four innings. He threw 76 pitches on the afternoon, and just 37 were strikes. He has walked at least three in all but one of his five major league starts.
“It’s all about growing, especially in a rookie season,” Irvin said. “There’s going to be bumps and bruises, and it’s about growth. It’s about learning from your failures and learning from your successes as well.”
After Irvin exited, Andrés Machado allowed three runs to the Padres in the fifth before the Nationals stormed back in the seventh.
Then came Harvey’s struggles in the ninth. Cronenworth and Soto singled to start the inning before the right-hander fanned Bogaerts and Carpenter. With one out to get, Odor ended up getting Harvey — and gutting the Nationals.
“That hurts a lot,” Ruiz said. “Especially after two outs in that situation. We just got to keep playing hard, keeping coming from behind when we are behind in those games. That’s baseball. . . . Sometimes it’s going to hit you in face, and you just got to keep your head up.”