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Live Life Deliberately

‘Backbone’ of the bullpen locks down another series win for the Nats

PHILADELPHIA — Almost as soon as Mason Thompson took the mound Sunday, Kyle Finnegan began warming in the Washington Nationals’ bullpen, crow-hopping into throws. Then, after Thompson faced three batters, the same number he saw in a short appearance Friday, the bullpen door swung open, and Finnegan stepped through it.

Dave Martinez has kept Thompson, 25, on a short leash since taxing him in April. And as in Friday’s series opener, the quick-twitch managing helped Washington beat the Philadelphia Phillies by a run, this time 5-4. Behind Thompson, who threw just 10 pitches, Finnegan and Hunter Harvey recorded the final eight outs, continuing a strong stretch for two of the team’s more reliable players. The victory completed a 6-3 trip, with the Nationals (34-49) winning series at the San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners and Phillies (44-39), who had just swept the Cubs in Chicago.

“When we’re winning, our names might be called a little more often,” Finnegan said of himself and Harvey. “But we love that. That’s our job.”

The late-game situations were almost identical. With nine outs to record, Martinez tried to steal one, two or three outs from Thompson before turning to Finnegan and Harvey. He had Thompson pegged for just three hitters — the bottom of the order Friday, the top of the order of Kyle Schwarber, Trea Turner and Nick Castellanos on Sunday. The key difference: On Friday, Thompson inherited a one-run lead that stayed intact. On Sunday, he entered with a two-run lead that the Phillies quickly cut in half.

Schwarber greeted Thompson with a double before Turner struck out. But after Castellanos bounced a double down the left field line, Martinez emerged from the dugout to hook Thompson, who has not faced more than five batters in a game since June 4. He started the year as a multi-inning option, logging at least four outs in seven of his 11 appearances in April. In five of them, he completed two innings or more. But after throwing 43 pitches in three days in late April, Thompson lost his mechanics, and his results spiraled.

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It took him more than a month to find a rhythm again. Once he did, pitching coach Jim Hickey admitted the Nationals “did him a little bit of a disservice when he pitched the three innings in New York and then asked him to come back with one day [of] rest. I think that was probably the beginning of it.” So as of late, Martinez has been careful with Thompson, who joined Washington at the 2021 trade deadline when Daniel Hudson was dealt away. The question is whether this usage pattern is sustainable for the rest of the bullpen.

“I’m trying to manage him,” Martinez said when asked whether Thompson’s usage was more about strategy or workload. “He got up twice already, and I told Hickey, ‘Three batters no matter what, and then he’s done.’ . . . I’m just trying to get him up, get him in and not get him up to 25, 30 pitches.”

Is Martinez worried about straining Finnegan or Harvey?

“We’ll figure out something [Monday],” Martinez said with a laugh. “I like the way [Amos] Willingham throws — I really do. … I like what [Jose A.] Ferrer is doing. [Joe] La Sorsa can get lefties out when we need him. [Jordan] Weems should be fresh. But [Finnegan and Harvey] understand what we’re trying to do, and I wouldn’t do it to them if they weren’t ready for it. … For me, as I told Hickey, we really have to keep an eye on their workload. I know they have four days off coming up with the all-star break, but we got to watch them this week.”

There was a lead to protect because of Stone Garrett’s grand slam and a solo shot for Jeimer Candelario, both off left-hander Ranger Suárez. Trevor Williams settled in for five solid innings after a rocky first. Not long after a 23-minute rain delay, Ferrer kept the two-run lead in place despite the first two Phillies reaching in the sixth, slowing the rally with a double play. Then to escape the seventh, Finnegan walked Harper before getting J.T. Realmuto — who had homered off Williams in the Phillies’ three-run first — to bounce into a double play.

To complete the eighth, Finnegan pushed through hard contact and shaky command, again capping the inning with a double play, a yell and a fist pump. Harvey followed for a 13-pitch save in a one-two-three ninth.

“After the sixth inning, whenever it is, we’re ready to go,” Finnegan said. “It’s been different situations, different spots, matching up sometimes. It’s been a little more consistent as of late, so I’ve been prepared for that seventh or eighth. And Hunter has done a great job in the ninth locking it down. I feel like we’re getting our groove down there.”

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The more competitive the Nationals are, the more Finnegan, Harvey and Thompson will be called on. The other bullpen spots belong to rookies, Weems and Cory Abbott, who usually takes mop-up duty. Setup man Carl Edwards Jr. remains on the injured list with right shoulder inflammation. But if Thompson can pitch only in small doses, more and more batters slide to Finnegan and Harvey.

At the start of this road swing, Thompson recorded five outs against the Padres, his former team. But in Philadelphia, he faced six batters over two appearances, leaving Finnegan to navigate his jams before pitching the eighth. Finnegan threw just nine of his 22 pitches for strikes Sunday but limited the Phillies by inducing groundballs. Harvey, meanwhile, has not allowed a run over his past seven appearances. For now, the bullpen pillars are handling the weight.

“They’re the backbone of our bullpen, those two guys,” Martinez said. “They hold down everything.”


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