Game slips away from Nats as taxed 'pen falters

July 20th, 2023

CHICAGO -- The Nationals' series with the Cubs at Wrigley Field began with closer Hunter Harvey being placed on the 15-day injured list because of a right elbow strain. The ripple effects in the already hampered bullpen were seen over the three games, concluding with five runs allowed in the eighth inning of Wednesday’s 8-3 loss to the Cubs

“We came back after being down, we’ve just got to get some guys to get some outs in the back end of the bullpen,” manager Dave Martinez said. 

Following a lopsided 17-3 loss on Tuesday, the Nationals battled to overcome a two-run deficit and even the score at 3 in the eighth behind a home run from Jeimer Candelario and line-drive RBI single from Luis García off Julian Merryweather. They were still in contention to win the series and return from a two-city road trip in Chicago and St. Louis with a .500 split.

Despite being short-handed without back-end relievers Harvey and Carl Edwards Jr. -- who has been rehabbing from right shoulder inflammation since June -- and making four calls to the ‘pen on Tuesday, the Nats were positioned to turn to high-leverage right-hander Mason Thompson after Jordan Weems and Joe La Sorsa completed the sixth and seventh innings in relief of Trevor Williams (five innings, seven hits, two runs).

Thompson entered the tied game having recorded eight holds and possessing a 1.72 ERA in his last 16 games. He had delivered 27 pitches across 1 1/3 innings in Monday’s win, and the Nats were hoping for another efficient outing.

Thompson, though, allowed a line-drive single into center field by Seiya Suzuki, followed by a five-pitch walk to Christopher Morel. Miles Mastrobuoni then connected for a bunt on a curveball in the zone that bounced high in front of the plate, reaching first without a play. With the bases loaded and no outs, pinch-hitter and former Nationals catcher Yan Gomes hit a sacrifice fly deep enough into left field to plate Suzuki for the go-ahead run.

“I just felt a little rushed,” said Thompson, who was charged with four runs off two hits and two walks in two-thirds of an inning. “I felt like I wasn’t quite just going after them like I have been. Overall, I’ve got to do a better job of getting ahead, staying ahead and making better pitches out there.”

Thompson also noted he was trying to be “too fine.” Martinez observed a change in Thompson’s mechanics, which Thompson has worked to address during this season.

“His arm slot is shorter there,” said Martinez. “So we’ve got to get him some length again and get him back to throwing. Once he does that, his head goes forward. … I really want to be careful with him. This guy’s a big part of our future, so I want to get him right.”

Given Thompson’s injury history, the Nationals made the call for Cory Abbott once Thompson’s pitch count reached 33 with the bases loaded. Abbott, a former Cub, had not pitched since July 14 in St. Louis and was rested in the taxed bullpen. In his first at-bat, he allowed a grand slam to Nico Hoerner on a 93.2 mph fastball.

“I was just stupid, threw him a fastball he can hit -- plain and simple,” said Abbott, adding, “I think if I threw it to the outside, we still would be OK. It was just hung over the plate, and he took advantage of it.”

The Nationals made a total of 10 calls to the bullpen this series. They also placed Paolo Espino on the 15-day IL on Wednesday because of a flexor strain of his fourth right finger, the day after he allowed eight runs in one-third of an inning, and called up reliever Rico Garcia from Triple-A to add a fresh arm with the potential to cover multiple innings.

There is no immediate solution when they return to Washington to host the Giants on Friday. The bullpen, many of whom have joined the Nationals in recent weeks, will have to fill the void left by a series of injuries.

“We’ve just got to treat it the same way as we always would -- just go out there and keep competing, keep going out there and trying to get ahead, stay ahead. That’s all it comes down to,” said Thompson. “It’s still the same game at the end of the day. We’ve just got to go out there and do a better job of helping the team win.”