Joshua Palacios burns ex-teammates in Nationals’ 5-1 loss to Pirates

PITTSBURGH — This time a year ago, Joshua Palacios was wearing a Washington Nationals jersey and striving to prove he belongs in the big leagues. On Tuesday night, Palacios was wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates jersey and striving to prove he belongs in the big leagues. By launching a two-run homer in the second inning against Joan Adon, he helped the home team beat his old team, 5-1, at PNC Park.

“I don’t even know how to explain it,” Adon said of his outing, in which he lasted four-plus innings but 14 Pirates reached base. “I felt good, but they were just hitting my pitches and seeing everything very well.”

Palacios got Pittsburgh going in his first at-bat, slugging a two-run shot to center. The 28-year-old had been designated for assignment by the Toronto Blue Jays in April 2022. The Nationals, who liked his contact skills, claimed him off waivers in the hope that his power would come. He finally got his chance after last year’s trade deadline — he replaced Juan Soto in right field Aug. 2, the day of the blockbuster that sent Soto to San Diego.

As a rebuilding club near the bottom of the standings, the Nationals have the luxury of diving deep into the waiver wire in pursuit of overlooked talent. They can give those players ample opportunity until their more-heralded prospects are ready. There’s minimal risk — and certainly no guarantee of a reward.

In this case, Palacios didn’t work out with Washington. He hit .213 with 15 strikeouts and one walk in 29 games. He was outrighted to Class AA Harrisburg in December to clear space on the 40-man roster. The Nationals didn’t send him to Class AAA Rochester, which allowed the Pirates to take him in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft. And he isn’t the only Palacios trying to find his way in the majors — Richie, his younger brother, hit a pair of home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals during their 5-2 win at Baltimore on Tuesday night.

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Joshua fared well for the Pirates in the minors and has served as a fourth outfielder over 76 games for the big league team, but his numbers are by no means gaudy. Batting seventh Tuesday, he finished 2 for 4 with a walk and a stolen base to raise his average to .224. But he has provided the scuffling Pirates (67-78) with outfield depth that the Nationals (65-80) could have used, especially as injuries mounted earlier in the season.

“He’s a lot quieter hitting,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “He’s not jumping as much. He’s getting good pitches to hit, and he’s swinging the bat well. He’s swinging the bat aggressive. But I noticed that he’s more under control a little bit and he’s staying behind the baseball.”

The Nationals have four players on their active roster whom they scooped off waivers. Right-hander Hunter Harvey, added in March 2022, has turned himself into one of the team’s best relievers. Lefty Joe La Sorsa, snagged this June, hasn’t pitched in this series but saved the bullpen with 3⅔ innings of relief Sunday.

Outfielder Alex Call, added in August 2022, was higher in the Nationals’ pecking order than Palacios but has a .195 batting average in 365 at-bats this season. He had made just two starts in September before getting into the lineup Tuesday. Batting eighth and playing in left field, he went 0 for 2 with a strikeout before he was pinch-hit for by Jake Alu in the eighth.

Lefty Robert Garcia, who replaced Adon (four runs, eight hits, six walks, four strikeouts) in the fifth after he allowed three straight hits, including an RBI single by Miguel Andújar, is the other, added in August. He walked the first batter he faced to load the bases. He allowed a run to score when Bryan Reynolds grounded out, making it 4-1. After an intentional walk, Garcia got a strikeout to end the inning.

“He looked like his mechanics were a little off,” Martinez said. “He was opening up a little bit too soon. He’s a guy that can pound the strike zone. So today was kind of uncharacteristic with him. We’ll talk to him tomorrow and try to get him back and home in on throwing strikes.”

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The Nationals walked 10 batters, though four were intentional. The Pirates scored their final run off Amos Willingham, who walked two, in the seventh on a Ke’Bryan Hayes sacrifice fly but left 15 runners on base.

With two outs in the seventh and Ildemaro Vargas (who had an RBI single in the fourth) on second base, the Nationals had a chance to get closer when Dominic Smith sent a single to right field. Third base coach Gary DiSarcina waved Vargas home, but Palacios threw him out. For the second time Tuesday, the former waiver claim had burned his old team.

Note: Martinez said righty Jackson Rutledge, the Nationals’ first-round draft pick in 2019, will start Wednesday night against the Pirates. It will be his major league debut.

Injuries early in Rutledge’s pro career slowed his rise, but he made 20 starts at low Class A Fredericksburg last season and ended the year healthy. The 24-year-old got off to a strong start at Harrisburg this season, leading to a promotion to Rochester. He has a 3.71 ERA across 23 minor league starts in 2023.

The opening in the rotation was created when the Nationals pushed back Josiah Gray’s next start to Thursday and MacKenzie Gore went on the injured list with blisters.

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