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Jake Irvin impresses as Nationals win Guardians final

CLEVELAND — When Jake Irvin saw the ball come off Tyler Freeman’s bat and roll toward shortstop Ildemaro Vargas, his celebration began. Moments earlier, the Washington Nationals righthander had given up back-to-back singles in the fifth inning to the Cleveland Guardians, resulting in a visit from pitching coach Jim Hickey. The grounder Irvin needed came just three pitches later.

Vargas fielded the ball and threw it to second baseman Luis García Jr., which got Irvin’s first fist pump. When García completed the inning-ending double play with a throw to first baseman Joey Gallo, Irvin punched the air again and added a few head nods on the way to the dugout.

The Nationals needed Irvin to be at his best to avoid a three-game sweep Sunday afternoon, and he was, allowing two runs over six innings in a 5-2 win at Progressive Field.

“Great visit from (Hickey) – he kind of pointed out that this was a good opportunity for a groundball in the first few pitches,” Irvin said. “I just wanted to execute a pitch, and those guys running it behind me, it’s always pretty awesome. I was excited.”

Irvin set the tone by throwing fourteen straight strikes to open his outing, finishing with six strikeouts and just one walk on 98 pitches. The victory capped a seven-game trip to annual contender Atlanta and American Cleveland (39-20), in which the Nationals (27-31) won 4-3.

“I always say the three constants: we have to pitch, we have to play good defense and we have to run the bases well,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “Some days there will be a hit; some days we had to scratch and claw. But if we can continue to do that, we can play – we can play with anyone.”

Irvin turned to his curveball 40 times, used it to get ahead in the count and then struck out hitters while cutting his ERA to 3.39. After he left, Robert Garcia, Hunter Harvey and Kyle Finnegan combined for three scoreless innings; Finnegan made his 16th save.

“To win most of the road trip against two teams that have played really well so far this year is a win for everyone,” outfielder Lane Thomas said. “In the first two games here we left some stuff on the table, but they played well. … Going forward, I think we have a chance to beat a lot more good teams.”

On Monday night, the Nationals open a three-game series against the visiting New York Mets with a slightly adjusted roster: Before Sunday’s game, backup catcher Riley Adams was optioned to Class AAA Rochester and Drew Millas was recalled.

Millas’ calling card is defense, where Keibert Ruiz and Adams have struggled this season. Adams has posted minus-2 catcher framing runs, and Ruiz is an MLB-worst minus-3, according to Baseball Savant. Millas, a 26-year-old who played two games in April while Ruiz was sidelined with the flu, could get more opportunities this time around. He hit .308 with five home runs and an .858 OPS for the Red Wings.

That does not mean that the 27-year-old Adams, who struggled defensively on Saturday in a 3-2 defeat, will not get another chance. For the season, he is hitting .215 with two home runs and a .635 OPS; but in the past 15 games he is hitting .140 with one extra base hit. Martinez said he wants Adams to find his rhythm in Rochester. He also wants to see him get reps at first base, giving him another path to playing time if Joey Meneses (.607 OPS) and Gallo (.590) continue to struggle.

On Sunday, however, it was the bottom of the order – Meneses, Gallo and Vargas – that helped the Nationals take an early lead ahead of Irvin, who didn’t get much support. In the second inning, the Nationals had two runners in scoring position for Meneses, who hit a double over Freeman’s head in center field for a 2-0 lead. After Gallo struckout, Vargas singled to bring home Meneses. Vargas advanced to second base on the throw and made it 4-0 after leadoff man Thomas’ single.

The Guardians pushed back into the bottom half. After a single and a double, Daniel Schneemann hit a two-out double on the first pitch he saw in the major leagues, cutting the Nationals’ lead to 4-2. Irvin ended the threat by striking out Brayan Rocchio on a curveball.

In the fourth, Gallo walked and Vargas singled before Thomas’ sacrifice fly brought Gallo home and made it 5-2. The Nationals then managed only two baserunners. One of them was Nick Senzel, who walked 13 pitches in the eighth inning before being thrown out on a pickup.

But the Nationals’ five runs — their second-highest in an Irvin start this year — were more than enough.

“Props to those guys, man,” Irvin said. “They took a bit of a load off my shoulders, and it was really great to see.”

Remark: Outfielder Jacob Young (right hand soreness) and shortstop CJ Abrams (left shoulder problem) did not play. Abrams was in the first lineup, but was scratched for the second day in a row. Martinez said X-rays on Young’s hand came back negative after he left Saturday’s game early.

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