Jake Irvin, Nationals can’t overcome control issues in loss to Brewers

MILWAUKEE — Jake Irvin stood behind the rubber in the fifth inning Friday night with his glove on his left hip, shaking his head in disbelief. The blue and yellow lights flashed at American Family Field. Brewers first baseman Carlos Santana rounded the bases. Washington Manager Dave Martinez made his way out of the dugout to take the ball from the rookie.

The Nationals right-hander had just allowed his second straight home run. The first, a three-run shot by William Contreras, had tied the game. Santana’s gave Milwaukee the lead. His second homer in the eighth off Hunter Harvey provided the Brewers with insurance as they beat the Nationals, 5-3. Washington has allowed all of its runs in the past two games on homers.

“The walks and home runs, that’s what got him in trouble,” Martinez said. “He competed early. He got out some jams early. We were hoping to get through the fifth inning, but the walks got him.”

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Three batters prior, Irvin’s outing had looked promising. He had issued four walks, but he was one hitter away from going five innings without allowing a run. Then Irvin walked Christian Yelich on six pitches, prompting a mound visit from pitching coach Jim Hickey.

Well before that mound visit, Irvin had been in control with a 3-0 lead. After the Nationals managed just three base runners in Thursday’s 2-0 defeat to the Pittsburgh Pirates, they put four runners on in the first inning Friday. Lane Thomas launched a home run that curved just inside the left field foul pole. Joey Meneses, Carter Kieboom and Ildemaro Vargas all doubled to give Irvin a cushion before he toed the rubber.

Through the first three innings, Irvin allowed two base runners. He gave up a first-inning walk to Santana and a third-inning single to Brice Turang, who was wiped off the bases by a double play. Irvin had strong command of his curveball, leading to seven whiffs in 12 total swings against the pitch. But by the fourth inning, that began to falter.

Irvin walked a pair of batters in a 22-pitch inning that pushed his pitch count to 71. But Irvin struck out Mark Canha looking with a fastball and yelled in celebration as he hopped off the mound. One inning later, he wouldn’t be so lucky.

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To open the fifth, Irvin walked Rowdy Tellez, tying his career high for a single game with four. His fifth walk of the night, to Yelich, set the mark.

Following the mound visit, Contreras blasted an inside sinker 456 feet over the home bullpen to tie the game at 3. Against Santana, Irvin worked the count full before throwing another sinker that caught plenty of the plate.

The ball landed over the fence, and suddenly the Nationals were trailing. Irvin trudged off the mound and into the dugout.

“Location wise, not terrible,” Irvin said. “But at the end of the day, certain guys hit certain pitches really well. Looking at that and the types of reports that we have, not the best pitches. So, definitely frustrating.”

This was expected to be the point in the season at which Irvin slowed down. Between five starts with Class AAA Rochester and 23 with the Nationals (140⅔ innings), the 26-year-old has thrown more innings this year than in any previous season of professional baseball. He has reached triple-digit innings only three times in his career.

The Nationals have been careful to monitor his innings, even hinting at shutting him down. Yet Irvin has been Washington’s best pitcher since the all-star break. He had a 3.76 second-half ERA entering Friday and had been the rotation’s most reliable pitcher to go deep into games.

Against the Brewers, Irvin wasn’t able to give the Nationals the length that they desperately needed, as the team finds itself in the eighth game of a 17-game stretch without a break. The loss didn’t rest solely on the two home runs Irvin allowed, though. The Nationals’ offense picked up only two hits and two walks after the first inning and provided minimal support to a pitching staff that kept them in striking distance. But Irvin put Friday’s loss on himself.

“It’s stinks, man,” Irvin said. “The offense did what they do and have been doing all year. It’s my job to go out there and secure that for us and get us deep into that ballgame. And I didn’t do that today.”

Note: Tanner Rainey has appeared in seven games for Class AAA Rochester, but Martinez said he’s in no rush to bring him back to the majors. Martinez said it’s possible that Rainey could pitch for the Nationals toward the end of the season, but he wouldn’t guarantee it. Rainey, who had Tommy John surgery in August 2022, is still working through mechanical adjustments, specifically repeating his delivery and making sure his lower half and arm are in sync. Martinez said the team could have Rainey come back to Washington following this current road trip to throw a bullpen session.

“We want to make sure that he’s completely healthy and really get him going,” Martinez said. “He’s going to be a big part of next year for us. … I want him to get innings. We want him to work out these bugs now so that when he’s in spring training, he just focuses on pitching.”

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