Jefry Rodriguez struggles early, and the Nationals fall back to .500

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Never did the Washington Nationals expect to place such a large burden on Jefry Rodriguez this season as they did Monday night at PNC Park. He is someone they can envision relying on for heavy workloads in the future, but not now, not in 2018.

The Nationals didn’t have much of a choice because their rotation has been in shambles for a month, which left their bullpen tottering Monday after it had to overeat innings for several days. So Washington needed the 24-year-old Rodriguez, who entered with a 5.52 ERA in four career major league outings, to pitch deep into Monday’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Those aspirations were immediately dented in a 6-3 loss. Rodriguez, doomed by a dreadful beginning, lasted five innings. He allowed six runs — all in the first two frames — on eight hits and four walks. He battled after the initial onslaught, settling down to provide five innings, which tied a career high, but the hole proved too deep.

The defeat was the Nationals’ second straight and dropped them back to .500 at 45-45. They are 5½ games behind the first-place Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East.

“We scratched and clawed there,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said, “and couldn’t make up those runs.”

A month ago, Washington boasted the best starting rotation in the NL. The unit was sustaining the club as the offense faltered. But the rotation has nose-dived since Stephen Strasburg exited a game June 8 with shoulder inflammation. Entering Monday, the Nationals’ starters carried a 6.50 ERA, .301 batting average against, .388 on-base percentage against and .531 slugging percentage against since June 9. Those figures all ranked last in the majors by a significant margin.

The problem has intensified over the past week. First, Erick Fedde landed on the disabled list Thursday, dwindling the Nationals’ already-thin big league-ready starting pitching depth. Then Jeremy Hellickson, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark logged short outings Thursday, Friday and Sunday, respectively, exhausting Washington’s seven-man bullpen to the point that Mark Reynolds, a veteran infielder, pitched Sunday for the first time in his major league career. Altogether, Nationals relievers had logged 24 innings since Wednesday.

“Our bullpen’s been heroic,” Martinez said.

As a result, the Nationals needed Rodriguez to pitch deeper into Monday’s game than he has ever pitched in his brief major league career.

Fortune was not on his side early. Making his third career start, Rodriguez surrendered four hits, including a couple of well-placed groundballs, and three runs before securing an out in the first inning. He then allowed three more runs in the second, punctuated by a mammoth home run off Gregory Polanco’s bat, which gave the Pirates (42-48) a 6-1 lead. By the time he walked off the mound in the third inning, Rodriguez (0-1) had accumulated 73 pitches. He wasn’t destined for a long showing.

“I thought he was pretty unfortunate, really,” said Nationals catcher Matt Wieters, who went 1 for 4 in his first game off the disabled list. “They found some holes, got some hits that weren’t bad pitches. .?.?. And really the only mistake that got hit hard was the ball hit by Polanco. But other than that, I thought he threw the ball well. He did a great job of, once he gave up the six runs, getting deeper into the ballgame, which we needed for our bullpen.”

For the fifth time in six games, Washington’s opponent scored first, leaving the onus on the Nationals’ offense to produce. Washington pushed a run across in the second against Pirates right-hander Ivan Nova (5-6), but a base running blunder perhaps cost the Nationals more. After Matt Adams and Daniel Murphy each singled, Adam Eaton smacked a ball to center field to score Adams. Murphy, however, was easily thrown out attempting to go first to third. Wieters and Rodriguez then struck out to end the inning.

Juan Soto plated a second run with his ninth homer in the fifth inning, and Bryce Harper followed with another solo shot — a 443-foot blast to dead center field — in the sixth to make it 6-3. Three batters later, Eaton, frustrated with a called strike, communicated his displeasure with home plate umpire Gabe Morales. Eventually, Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli inserted himself in the dialogue, and the two players began barking at each other face-to-face.

The swift escalation prompted the benches and bullpens to clear, but it was all for nothing. It was an uneventful benches-clearing skirmish, even by baseball standards.

“I was kind of feeding words to the umpire,” Eaton said. “I wasn’t real happy with the call, as you could probably tell. And [Cervelli] goes to walk away, kind of making a bigger deal than it really was. I don’t know why you’ve got to walk away there and kind of isolate us and make it a bigger deal than it was. I simply said: ‘Where the heck are you going?’ He didn’t like that. That’s his prerogative.”

Eaton promptly doubled. In an alternate universe, the sequence would have ignited the Nationals, but Eaton was left stranded at second base.

Washington didn’t threaten again until the ninth — after three scoreless innings from the bullpen — against former National and current all-star Felipe Vazquez, putting two runners on base for Reynolds, the reigning NL player of the week. Reynolds hit the ball hard but on the ground and into a game-ending double play as the Nationals couldn’t overcome Rodriguez’s early struggles on a night when they needed more than he has ever given them.

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