Another bad night by the Nats’ bullpen spoils DJ Herz’s stellar start (2024)

Years from now, if the Washington Nationals look back on Tuesday night, left-hander Robert Garcia entering in the 10th inning and allowing five runs won’t be particularly meaningful. Yes, for the second day in a row at Nationals Park, the bullpen lost them a 10-inning game with the New York Mets, this time to the tune of a 7-2 score. And, yes, that woeful relief corps is the reality they must grapple with as they endure a 17-game stretch without a day off leading into the all-star break.

Since June 12, the Nationals’ bullpen has a 5.71 ERA, the second-worst mark in the majors. In the eighth inning Tuesday, Hunter Harvey allowed a run for the fourth time in his past five outings, boosting his ERA to 4.35 and tying the score at 2. Pete Alonso’s two-run homer in the 10th gave the Mets a five-run lead and ushered fans toward the exits.

“Honestly, I thought I made good pitches today and I thought I made some really bad ones,” Garcia said. “And they just hit the bad ones. ... Got to be able to flush it.”

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“Just missed locations,” Manager Dave Martinez said of the bullpen’s issues. “We need to start winning games in regulation is what we need to do. We’ve got to start hitting a little better.”

The story must begin with the bullpen’s miscues, which spoiled a masterful night by rookie DJ Herz. In the big picture, though, the Nationals’ attention starts with that 23-year-old left-hander, who was plucked from the Chicago Cubs’ Class AA affiliate a year ago in a trade for third baseman Jeimer Candelario. A month ago, Martinez laid out a single task for Herz: Try to control your heartbeat. The nerves of his major league debut June 4, Herz said, didn’t fade until he got his first major league out, a strikeout of Alonso. On Tuesday, he saw the Mets again.

This time, he had 10 strikeouts and no walks for the second time in his young career, becoming just the second pitcher in MLB history to hit those marks in his first six starts. (Stephen Strasburg was the first.) This time, the mastery began with his eighth pitch to Alonso: He dialed up a four-seam fastball — a pitch that had wobbled in his past few starts — for the sixth time in the at-bat to strike him out swinging.

As much as a single pitch could, it signaled progress, with Herz returning to the dugout with aplomb after a small hop off the mound. By the end, he had allowed just one run on five hits in 5⅔ innings, confident and calm as all get out with a fastball that sat 94 mph.

“The main focus [leading into the game] was noncompetitive pitches,” he said. “I attacked. I threw a lot of strikes. No walks again was the big thing. ... Making them beat me, not me beating myself.”

A month ago, Herz arrived with an uncertain expiration date following Trevor Williams’s trip to the injured list. With setbacks for right-handers Josiah Gray and Cade Cavalli — expected franchise pillars who could have nudged Herz back out of the rotation — announced before the game, it appears he’ll be sticking around for a while longer.

Exactly a year earlier, Gray learned he was an all-star. On Tuesday, he stood in front of his locker grappling with tougher news. After Gray strung together a couple of good rehab starts, Martinez indicated his appearance Sunday with Class AAA Rochester might be one of his last in the minors.

Then came a dip in velocity, three innings of elbow discomfort and fatigue that he said was similar to the early April malady that landed him on the IL with a right flexor strain. Now, Gray is shut down through at least the all-star break, around when he will get an MRI exam.

Cavalli, who was on track to return as early as mid-June after Tommy John surgery in March 2023, also will have to ramp up again, going back to playing catch before he can throw off a mound after recently contracting the flu.

Still, through those setbacks, Washington (39-46) is where it is because of breakouts by other young pitchers. MacKenzie Gore and Jake Irvin have significantly trimmed their ERAs from a year ago. Rookie Mitchell Parker replaced Gray and has a 3.32 ERA. Now the Nationals have a chance to develop Herz, who admitted his first month had its ups (a brilliant 13-strikeout outing in his third start) and downs (lasting just 3⅔ and 3⅓ innings in the two that followed). The Nationals hope he can repeat his mechanics and get ahead in counts.

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Against New York (42-41) he mastered both, conceding just Francisco Lindor’s solo shot in the sixth. He left to a standing ovation with a smile, two pats on the palm of his glove and his team in the lead. Before the game, Herz recounted, pitching coach Jim Hickey and pitching strategist Sean Doolittle told him not to give hitters too much credit. His stuff plays well in the strike zone — just get it in there and trust it.

“Our young pitchers are keeping us in games,” said Martinez, whose team has lost three in a row and seven of eight.

The Nationals scored their first run in the third, when a double and two infield singles, the second from CJ Abrams, provided a 1-0 lead. They scored again in the fifth, with Harold Ramírez beating out a potential inning-ending double play ball to score Jacob Young.

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Top prospect James Wood, in his second game, didn’t inject any offense, but he clocked the game’s hardest-hit balls, groundouts of 111.6 and 107.8 mph. In the ninth inning, he worked a leadoff walk before getting caught stealing when he overslid the bag. Had the Nationals driven him in, he and Herz would have been the short-term story. Instead, the bullpen malaise gets top billing.

“Obviously you want the balls to find holes, but I mean, that’s just baseball sometimes,” Wood said. “I’m learning quickly how close these games really are. One play can really make a difference.”

Another bad night by the Nats’ bullpen spoils DJ Herz’s stellar start (2024)
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