The result: A 4-3 win for the Nationals (67-85). For most of the evening, they couldn’t solve righty José Ureña, who spent part of the season with Washington’s Class AAA affiliate, entered with an 8.48 ERA and lowered it to 7.27 by yielding one run in six innings. Rutledge, 24, shrank his 17.18 ERA — a product of that one start — to 8.10. There’s still work to do, especially since the White Sox (58-94) have the third-lowest team OPS in the majors.
But in a rookie’s first crack at the highest level, no triumph is too small to celebrate. Rutledge spread his pitches out evenly, throwing 24 four-seam fastballs, 24 sliders, 15 sinkers, 10 change-ups and five curves. A change-up to Robert and curve to Moncada were two he wanted back. On an efficient 78 pitches, Rutledge struck out two and walked one.
“Getting ahead of guys, I did a much better job of that, and establishing the bottom of the zone,” Rutledge said of what led to his success. “[Catcher Drew] Millas works really well back there. He probably stole me a couple strikes, which is always nice. I just got in the zone early with the sinker. Heavy right-handed lineup, that’s going to be the attack for me. A lot of sinker-slider.”
Another step forward came in the top of the third. After Rutledge walked Tim Anderson on four pitches, Anderson took off for second on a first-pitch slider to Robert. The infield and dugout yelled out “Runner!” — letting Rutledge know that Millas would spring up and throw. So with last week in mind, Rutledge crouched, turned and wound up with his back side facing Millas this time, his head all but pressed to the dirt around the rubber, shielded by the rest of his 6-foot-8 frame.
Anderson overslid the bag and Luis García tagged him out. Rutledge made it through three innings at 38 pitches, 32 fewer than it took to record nine outs against the Pirates. That start lasted only 3⅓ innings. This one closed with Rutledge walking off to an ovation from the scattered crowd.
“I got a little lower this time,” Rutledge said with a laugh. “I don’t know if I looked super athletic doing it … Maybe next time I’ll go face down all fours.”
“I wasn’t going to bring it up,” said Manager Dave Martinez. “I’m glad he got down because that would have been awfully close again.
To begin the fourth, Robert stalked a first-pitch, middle-middle change-up and rocked it out to left. To start the seventh, Moncada did the same with a first-pitch, hanging curveball and rocked it out to right. The lesson: Rutledge has to be much more precise when trying to get ahead with off-speed pitches. But toward the end of his outing, Rutledge rode his slider through a third turn through the top of Chicago’s order. He threw three to Robert in the sixth, inducing a soft flyball to first baseman Dominic Smith. Then he threw four straight to Eloy Jiménez, ending the inning with a groundout to third.
In the bottom half of the sixth, after rookie Jacob Young led off with a triple, Lane Thomas knotted the score with a sacrifice fly. In the bottom of the seventh, after Moncada unknotted the score with his solo shot, Ildemaro Vargas walked with one out, Carter Kieboom roped a pinch-hit single, then Meneses launched the go-ahead homer with two outs.
The end wasn’t easy, as Kyle Finnegan, the Nationals’ closer, allowed some hard contact and a run in the ninth. When he walked Trayce Thompson, the third ball issued because of a pitch clock violation, the tying run moved to second with two down. But he recovered by getting Elvis Andrus to line out, icing a win that started with a rookie bouncing back.
“Most players, their first time in the big leagues, their first game, it’s hard to control your emotions, your nerves,” Meneses said in Spanish through a team interpreter. “That probably had a lot to do with his first outing. This time around, he was a lot better about being prepared and being able to control those emotions out there.”
Note: Before the victory, the Nationals put outfielder Travis Blakenhorn on the 10-day injured list with plantar fasciitis and activated Blake Rutherford. Blankenhorn, 27, homered in his debut with the Nats but otherwise batted .161 in 37 plate appearances. Martinez indicated Tuesday that his season is over. Rutherford, a 26-year-old rookie, had six hits in 34 plate appearances before he was demoted in late August. He started in left field Tuesday, batting eighth, and finished with two groundouts before Meneses pinch-hit for him in the decisive seventh.