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Offensive fireworks prove elusive for Nats in loss to Reds

All of a sudden, it seemed as if every pitcher in the visitors’ bullpen was doing something to warm up during the bottom of the fifth inning Monday night at Nationals Park. Two Cincinnati Reds relievers threw weighted balls against a wall. Another stretched behind one of the rubbers. Another bent his arm this way, then that way, then the first way again, just in case the phone rang for him.

Out on the mound, Luke Weaver, a starter who entered with a 6.96 ERA, had two runners on with one down. Corey Dickerson led off with a single for Washington. Two batters later, Derek Hill singled, giving him three hits in his past 34 at-bats. But even with Cincinnati scrambling, Weaver navigated the inning by retiring Lane Thomas — who already had two hits against him — and Luis García in order. And when the Nationals lost, 3-2, to the upstart Reds (46-39), their quiet offense was to blame.

“Maybe if I hit a double … I mean, you can think about that stuff all you want,” Thomas said. “We just have to get better in those situations of moving guys and driving guys in in those close games. That’s the difference.”

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To that point of the contest, once Thomas and García failed to bring in Dickerson, the Nationals were 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position. They finished 1 for 9. Their runs came via a solo shot from Jeimer Candelario in the fourth and Keibert Ruiz’s RBI single in the sixth. But that wasn’t enough to make good on a solid start from Jake Irvin, who logged six innings and yielded three runs, or a shutdown performance from the bullpen, including four strikeouts for Jordan Weems, two outs from lefty Joe La Sorsa and a scoreless ninth from rookie Amos Willingham.

The highest paid attendance of the season, 36,290, stuck around for a late push (and surely postgame fireworks, too). Yet the Nationals (34-50) put only one runner on in the last three innings. After Dickerson legged out an infield single with one out in the ninth, Manager Dave Martinez pinch-ran Stone Garrett, who attempted to steal second and was thrown out. Garrett, sure he was safe, immediately pleaded for a replay review. But the team’s video room didn’t feel one was necessary.

“Look, we got to kind of be aggressive, but in that situation there you have to be 1,000 percent sure you can make it,” Martinez said. “Obviously we weren’t smacking the ball how we wanted to today. I’m not going to fault him for being aggressive, but in that situation he has to know that he’s going to make it.”

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As has become routine, Washington shuffled its pitching staff a bit before the series began. Patrick Corbin, scheduled to start Tuesday, returned from the bereavement list. But instead of sending Jose Ferrer back to Class AAA, the club placed reliever Thaddeus Ward on the injured list with right shoulder inflammation. The Nationals have had to carry Ward all season because they selected him in December’s Rule 5 draft. Ward, though, had been active for 95 days, meaning he could spend the rest of the year on the IL and stay with the club beyond this season.

That’s not necessarily the Nationals’ plan. But to remain with their new team, Rule 5 picks have to be active for at least 90 days and accrue a full year of major league service. Ward will keep collecting service time on the shelf, whether he sticks with the club or heads to Florida for an extended rehab. The bullpen, meanwhile, now has eight pitchers with unrestricted workloads. Ward underwent Tommy John surgery in 2021, so Washington had been cautious with him, using him for 30⅓ innings across 22 appearances. That has amounted to about seven outings per month, most of them in mop-up situations.

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“I need to clean up my mechanics a lot,” Ward said Monday. “I am really good about my mechanics with my pregame work. I’m really good about warming up to go into the game. But when I get into the game, it’s a totally different story from when I’m warming up. So I need to clean that up. A lot of mechanic stuff leads to a lot of injury stuff.”

Irvin didn’t ask a ton of the bullpen, completing his six innings on 89 pitches. The Reds scored in the second by stringing together three singles, the last an RBI knock by Tyler Stephenson on a high sinker. Then in the fourth, rookie Elly De La Cruz singled before Joey Votto launched a middle-middle fastball for a two-run homer. De La Cruz, the Reds’ 21-year-old phenom, otherwise struck out twice against Irvin, looking at curveballs each time.

Irvin, 26, touched 97 with a sinker that averaged 94 mph. He also got nine called strikes with both his sinker and curve. The offense just couldn’t use his or the relievers’ efforts as a trampoline.

“That’s another really big thing that I’ve been looking at a lot up here,” said Irvin, who has allowed three runs or fewer in his past four starts. “Just how you sequence these hitters, how you get ahead and being able to tunnel [the sinker and curveball] together has been kind of a weapon for me. So I hope to keep that going.”

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