Cardinals rally, stun Nationals with a five-run ninth inning

ST. LOUIS — When evaluating the Washington Nationals’ future — game by game, week by week — it is natural to look at certain players. For example, it feels much more prudent, in the final month of this season, to key on Keibert Ruiz than watch any at-bats by Nelson Cruz and César Hernández. Ruiz is supposed to be the catcher for at least the next half decade. The latter two players will depart in free agency this offseason.

Using this method, you could draw a line down the middle of the roster, dividing attention accordingly. Among those in the mix is ​​Kyle Finnegan, who is 31, the team’s best reliever and the man on the mound when the Nationals blew a four-run lead in the ninth inning of a 6-5 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday night. On the other end is a group of retreads. Somewhere in the middle, in the murky gray of team-building, are the players who have a chance to stick around but are unlikely to significantly affect the rebuild.

At the moment, their story is more personal triumph than a source of hope for a wary fan base. But if everything goes right, they might even chip in when all this losing turns into winning, whenever that may be. It might be a bench outfielder who gets hot for a month while filling in. It might be a long reliever who can eat innings and make a spot start.

These are players such as right-handed pitcher Cory Abbott.

Abbott, who turns 27 later this month, threw the first 4⅓ innings of Wednesday’s walk-off defeat. So, long before the Cardinals took it to Finnegan — capping their rally when Tommy Edman’s double nicked off Alex Call’s glove in left field and brought home the final two runs — Abbott was solid, if not efficient. He struck out five and walked none across 88 pitches. But he held the Cardinals to two singles, a double and Paul Goldschmidt’s towering solo homer in the fourth. When he exited, the Nationals, limited by Jordan Montgomery for most of the night, had a fighting chance.

“Very meh,” Abbott, ever honest and self-critical, said of his start. “I just threw too many balls, just didn’t finish five. I was really trying to go seven, so very meh.”

Montgomery, a 29-year-old lefty, blanked Washington until Hernández tripled in Cruz in the seventh. Abbott mostly matched him until he was hooked for Erasmo Ramírez with a man on second in the fifth. Ramírez retired each of the eight batters he faced, slimming his ERA to 2.28 in 67 innings out of the bullpen. Then the Nationals went ahead against Giovanny Gallegos in the eighth, pushing across four runs with two outs. After Riley Adams’ leadoff single, the rally included an RBI single for Joey Meneses, a two-run homer for Luke Voit and an RBI single for Luis García that brought in Cruz.

Thickening the plot, the Cardinals traded Voit, a native of the St. Louis area, for Gallegos in 2018. But despite the insurance runs, Finnegan yielded two singles and a double and walked two before Edman beat him on his season-high 31st pitch. Call tracked back but couldn’t make the tough grab over his shoulder. As the Cardinals ran out to celebrate, Hunter Harvey stopped warming up in the bullpen.

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“I didn’t feel rusty; just couldn’t make the pitch when I needed to,” said Finnegan, who hadn’t pitched in six days. “The stuff was getting a little too much of the plate, and they were doing their job. They were hitting mistakes and doing damage with it. I just wanted to make a pitch to get us out of it tonight.”

When the Nationals claimed Abbott off waivers in May, they were drawn to his breaking pitches and minor league options. He will have options for another season, meaning he will be able to swing between the majors and minors without going on waivers again, which would give the other 29 clubs a chance to scoop him up. So Abbott’s opportunity is to stick as a depth arm who fills out the rotation or the bullpen, either with the Nationals or a phone call and a quick flight away.

He is in the rotation because top prospect Cade Cavalli is recovering from shoulder inflammation. Abbott entered with a 4.39 ERA and shaved it to 4.06. He has started five times and made six appearances out of the bullpen. To hold the Cardinals in check, he threw almost as many curves as fastballs, inducing nine whiffs on 21 swings with the secondary pitch. He got four called strikes with his curve, too. His slider induced three whiffs on five swings.

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The only exception was Goldschmidt, who crushed a 2-1 slider to the third deck in left field, an estimated 400 feet from home plate. But if Abbott stacks enough four-to-five-inning outings on top of each other — if he is reliable when Manager Dave Martinez needs him, no matter how random the intervals — he may face Goldschmidt in a Nationals uniform again.

“I’m thinking about it all the time. . . to prove myself,” Abbott said. “To show the coaches I want to be here and I want to be up in the big leagues and not use those options.”

Why did shortstop CJ Abrams sit Wednesday? Just scheduled rest for the 21-year-old shortstop, whom Martinez doesn’t want to overtax despite his age. Beyond that, the plan lined up with the Nationals facing Montgomery, a left-hander Abrams might have struggled against. In his very, very young career, Abrams has a .676 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against righties compared with .325 against lefties. And while he’ll have to smooth that difference out, it doesn’t hurt to slightly filter his opportunities to favorable matchups.

On his day off, Martinez wanted Abrams to take extra time with hitting coach Darnell Coles and assistant hitting coach Pat Roessler. The shortstop’s at-bats have been sharper in recent games, including a career-best four hits against the Cardinals on Monday. Ildemaro Vargas replaced him at shortstop on Wednesday, and Hernández subbed in at third.

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