Jackson Rutledge rocked in Nationals debut, including by friendly fire

PITTSBURGH — Jackson Rutledge’s major league debut started with pacing through the visitors’ clubhouse at PNC Park, trying to hide his nervous excitement. It continued with catching up with old teammates, introducing himself to new ones and doing everything except sit down at his locker.

And it ended with a fourth inning that saw the 6-foot-8 right-hander get hit by his catcher on a throw down to second, the ball ricocheting into right field. The play, in some ways, encapsulated the outing for Rutledge, who had a hard time getting out of his own way against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Washington Nationals’ 7-6 loss.

“In AA and AAA, he’s thrown out a lot of guys for me,” Rutledge said of the throw from rookie Drew Millas, who hit his first career homer in the game. “And then I heard the ball coming at me. I got to work on getting out of the way a little more. I’m okay, so we’re good there. … But yeah, just weird. Weird day.”

Rutledge exited two batters later, trailing 7-1. Washington rallied, pulling within a run and loading the bases in the ninth inning with one out, but CJ Abrams struck out and Lane Thomas lined out to center to end it. Rutledge gave up 10 hits, seven runs and a walk and struck out a pair.

“Obviously, tonight didn’t go the way I wanted, but I’m a big leaguer and no one can take that from me, and I’m going to be better next time out. Today’s over,” said the 24-year-old Rutledge.

Rutledge, a first-round pick in 2019, is the 17th consecutive Nationals starter to not earn a win in his debut. Stephen Strasburg was the last to do so in 2010.

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When Washington protected Rutledge from December’s Rule 5 draft and placed him on the 40-man roster, it became more likely that he would make his debut at some point this season. But with other starter options ahead of him coming out of spring training, Rutledge had time to hone his craft after completing his first full season with low Class A Fredericksburg in 2022. He has dealt with a few injuries in the minors, including shoulder soreness and a blister on his hand in 2021.

Rutledge was promoted from Class AA Harrisburg to Class AAA Rochester after a strong start to this season, compiling a 3.16 ERA in 12 starts in Harrisburg and a 4.44 ERA in 11 starts with Rochester.

Since 2011, only seven of the Nationals’ first-round picks (Anthony Rendon, Brian Goodwin, Lucas Giolito, Erick Fedde, Carter Kieboom, Seth Romero and Cade Cavalli) have made their debut with the team. Kieboom still remains, and he has a .182 batting average this season, bringing his career average down to .195. The verdict is still out on Cavalli — he made one start last season before undergoing Tommy John surgery in March. Only Rendon, who left as a free agent, had sustained success with Washington out of that group.

Rutledge, though, has the chance to buck that trend on a day that started with General Manager Mike Rizzo agreeing to a contract extension. But Rutledge’s outing wasn’t what he or the Nationals were looking for.

By the time he took the mound, Rutledge had settled into the stoic, on-field approach that he has embraced as his career has progressed. And he had an early 1-0 lead after an RBI single by Joey Meneses. But Rutledge’s nerves were apparent — he started with three fastballs well above the strike zone to open the game against Ji Hwan Bae, who would eventually hit a leadoff single.

Then Bryan Reynolds singled, Ke’Bryan Hayes doubled and Jack Suwinski singled just inside the left field line, leaving Rutledge to throw his hands to the sky. The Pirates had a 2-1 lead that would grow to 4-1 by the end of the first, when nine Bucs came to the plate.

“That’s just a part of the adrenaline,” Washington Manager Dave Martinez said. “And then when he started throwing the ball down in the zone and getting on top of the ball, the ball came out really well.”

Rutledge settled in after the first inning, allowing just one run over the next two innings. Then came the fourth, where Rutledge walked Bae with one out. Bae took off for second base, and Rutledge ducked as low as a 6-8 pitcher can on a mound. But Millas’s throw plunked him on the top of the head.

Millas said after the game he got too much of the ball in his palm, which led to the poor throw. Millas, Martinez and a trainer all walked to the mound in concern to check on Rutledge, who smiled at Millas to let him know he was okay.

Millas’s homer in the fifth inning started the Nationals’ late push.

Reynolds hit a two-run home run immediately after the errant throw. Martinez wanted Rutledge to finish on a strong note, and the big right-hander retired one more batter before exiting on a night that he — and likely Millas — will never forget.

“Honestly, it was one of the weirdest nights of my life,” Millas said. “I was so embarrassed before that, first of all. Got a hanging curveball that I was looking for, hit it over the fence and I just didn’t know how to feel. Thankfully [Rutledge] is okay so that makes everything better. But the homer itself, I don’t know if I could enjoy it because I thought Rut was down bad.”

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