Mark Canha grand slam hands Nationals a loss to Brewers

MILWAUKEE — It had been a week since Kyle Finnegan was on the mound. The Washington Nationals’ closer felt his four-seamer and splitter were coming out of his hand well Saturday night. Still, he loaded the bases with the score tied and two outs in the eighth inning, setting up a matchup with Mark Canha. The moment prompted a visit from pitching coach Jim Hickey.

By that point, the Nationals had overcome a poor, two-inning start by Trevor Williams. They had climbed out of a four-run deficit thanks to solid at-bats in the later innings. They had tied the score on a Jake Alu single in the top half. And they were on the cusp of heading to the ninth with a chance to win.

But Canha didn’t miss a misplaced splitter from Finnegan to open his at-bat. The ball rocketed into the left field seats at American Family Field for a grand slam. Just like that, the Brewers had a 9-5 lead, and they beat the Nationals by the same score. Washington’s comeback was flushed down the drain in the few moments it took for Canha’s blast to reach the seats.

“I just didn’t execute the pitch,” Finnegan said. “After the mound visit, we thought my best matchup against him was a splitter down and in. And I just didn’t execute it. It hung up, went over the plate, and he put a really good swing on it and hit the ball out of the park.”

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The Nationals (65-84) entered September playing some of their best baseball, having gone 17-11 in August to provide optimism they were trending in the right direction. Yet Saturday’s loss dropped them to 3-11 this month. A 70-win season that seemed all but locked in may be falling out of the Nationals’ grasp.

“I’m proud of the boys,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “We’re down early. Your starter only gives you two innings. They battled. They battled all day. [Brewers right-hander Corbin] Burnes is tough. We hung in there. We stayed in there. We tied the game — just couldn’t get it done at the end.”

Nationals starter Trevor Williams lasted two arduous innings and barely managed to slow the hot-hitting Brewers (84-64), so Martinez turned to Amos Willingham for the third. Williams had faced first-place Milwaukee’s entire order by the time the first inning ended. Here’s how those plate appearances finished: single, single, walk, RBI single, RBI sacrifice fly, RBI single, walk, strikeout, groundout. Williams needed 47 pitches to escape the inning.

As the first unfolded, Willingham began throwing in the bullpen. Williams needed 23 pitches to get through the second, allowing a single but erasing the runner with a double play. That Williams allowed just three runs over two innings felt like a huge break for Washington. But his brief outing was representative of a starting staff that hasn’t carried its weight recently. The Nationals’ rotation has an ERA of 8.06 in 63⅔ September innings.

“I talked [Martinez] into the second [inning] and tried to talk him into the third, but we put ourselves in a tough position,” Williams said. “I put Amos in a tough position and the rest of the bullpen to kind of dig out of that hole. … We didn’t give up, and it’s a testament to the guys. All year, they’ve just been fighting.”

The inefficiency continued after Willingham entered. He allowed two walks and three hits, including a solo homer by Tyrone Taylor in the fourth, in one-plus inning. It took him 43 pitches to get three outs. Andrés Machado gave up three hits and a run over two innings and tossed another 33. Against the Nationals’ first three arms, the Brewers fouled off 38 pitches. But the Nationals limited the damage and gave their hitters a chance against Burnes.

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While Luis García hit a solo shot in the third inning to cut the deficit to 3-1, the Nationals otherwise remained dormant until the sixth. In that inning, Joey Meneses and Carter Kieboom hit RBI singles before García, who had his best game since he returned from Class AAA Rochester, forced in a run with a bases-loaded walk on a checked swing. The Brewers’ lead was 5-4, and that was the end of the night for Burnes. Elvis Peguero retired Alu on one pitch with the bases loaded, but he would get another chance.

In the eighth, after singles by Meneses and García, Alu tied the score at 5 with a flare, but it was all for naught. In the bottom half, Finnegan allowed a double, a single and a walk to load the bases for Canha. He tossed his bat as Finnegan watched the ball sail. After the inning, Finnegan put his glove to his face in anger.

The Nationals had nearly turned a poor start into a win, but they couldn’t finish the job.

“Our job is to stay ready down there [in the bullpen], and we did a really good job keeping us in the game,” Finnegan said. “All the way down to the eighth.”

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