By the time Justin Bour dug in with two outs in the 10th inning at Nationals Park on Thursday night, the Washington Nationals’ bullpen, deep on paper but without a proven closer, had already allowed the Miami Marlins’ three runs and squandered its first two leads of the season to spoil a sterling start from Gio Gonzalez. The Nationals were on their fifth reliever, newcomer Joe Blanton, and he had just surrendered a two-out single to J.T. Realmuto.
Bour, the former All-Met out of Westfield High and George Mason University, twice failed to produce earlier in the night with men on base against Gonzalez, a left-hander. But against the right-handed Blanton, Bour roped a 90-mph fastball just inside the left field line for a double to score Realmuto from first base for the go-ahead run in the Marlins’ 4-3 victory, one that ended nearly six hours after the scheduled first pitch because of two rain delays and prevented Washington from opening the season with a three-game sweep of its division opponent.
“You got to give them some credit over there,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “They hit our best out of the bullpen.”
The heroics of Bour, the burly first baseman, were possible because former National Tyler Moore, down to the Marlins’ last strike in the ninth inning, delivered a single up the middle off Nationals closer Blake Treinen to score Adeiny Hechavarria and knot the score at 3-3.
The inning had begun with left-hander Sammy Solis, not Treinen, on the mound after Ryan Zimmerman had cracked his second home run to give the Nationals a 3-2 lead because Baker favored the matchups with lefties due up. Zimmerman’s home run had broken a tie created when Realmuto whacked a hanging slider from Shawn Kelley with one out in the eighth inning into the visitors’ bullpen for a two-run home run. It was Kelley’s first appearance in 2017. Last season, Kelley didn’t allow a home run until his 20th appearance on May 24.
“He put the barrel on it,” Kelley said, “and did what he’s supposed to do with that pitch.”
The bullpen’s second blown lead began when Solis issued a four-pitch walk to Hechavarria and Derek Dietrich singled. Solis then got Dee Gordon to ground into a double play before giving way to Treinen, who entered with Hechavarria on third base and could not put Moore away on a 2-2 count for the 27th out.
“I got myself in a position where I should’ve had success,” said Treinen, who is 2 for 3 in save opportunities. “I just didn’t execute the pitch that I wanted to throw. It came back to bite us in the butt. I should’ve been able to get one out when I was in there.”
The relief troubles squandered the kind of outing the Nationals need from Gonzalez. Gonzalez, a native of Hialeah, Fla., has openly admitted he set making the All-Star Game in his home town of Miami this season as one of his goals. He looked worthy for at least a couple hours between rain delays.
Intense rain surges drenched Nationals Park for the bulk of the day until just before the scheduled first pitch at 4:05 p.m., forcing a delay. At 5:25 p.m., after waiting an extra hour and 20 minutes, Gonzalez embarked on his first start with an efficiency absent from many of his 2016 outings.
Relying on a fastball that settled between 89-90 mph, Gonzalez threw 13 pitches — 11 for strikes — in the first inning. The efficiency was not an aberration. Working briskly, the left-hander needed 90 pitches to traverse through six innings. He allowed seven hits, and they were all singles. He had seven strikeouts — five looking. His only walk was intentional, and he hit a batter with a pitch. The performance was reminiscent of Gonzalez’s first start last season, when he allowed three hits and tossed 95 pitches over six scoreless innings en route to posting a 1.86 ERA through eight starts. He compiled a 5.58 ERA over his final 24.
“I just wanted to stay focused,” Gonzalez said, “and attack the strike zone as much as possible.”
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Adam Eaton produced the game’s first run by jumping on the first pitch he saw from Marlins starter Tom Koehler — a 94-mph fastball — and depositing it over the out-of-town-scoreboard in right-center field for his first home run in a Nationals uniform. The blast gave the Nationals a 1-0 lead in the first inning, but it didn’t ignite Washington’s offense.
Instead, the Nationals wasted chances to provide Gonzalez insurance. They had the first batter reach base in the second, third, and fourth inning and produced nothing from it. The sequences left Gonzalez limited wiggle room when he encountered his own peril in the fourth and sixth innings. Both times Bour was the batter with runners on and two outs. Both times Gonzalez fell behind, first 3-0 then 2-0. And both times he ducked damage on full counts, getting an inning-ending double play in the fourth and a strikeout in the sixth.
A couple minutes later, as the Marlins took the field for the bottom of the sixth, the game was delayed again. The interruption lasted 1 hour 3 minutes, until 7:08 p.m., long enough to knock out both starting pitchers and initiate a bullpen battle the Nationals would lose.
Washington finally padded its lead in the seventh inning with a Jayson Werth solo blast off right-hander Kyle Barraclough, a cushion that was erased once Realmuto unloaded on Kelley’s offering in the eighth inning. The Nationals had more prime scoring chances in the final two innings, but they caught a bad break in the ninth — Adam Lind was caught off first base on Trea Turner’s line drive to the first baseman for a double play — before consecutive popouts by Anthony Rendon and Zimmerman with two runners on base in the 10th ended the long night, leaving the bullpen culpable for the first time in 2017, but still confident.
“I love my bullpen,” Baker said. “These guys are going to be one of the best, if they’re not already.”
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