Dodgers shut out by Nationals, drop another series at home in Landon Knack's first start

Los Angeles, California - April 17: Washington Nationals pitcher Jake Irvin (27) forces out Los Angeles Dodgers' Teoscar Hernandez (37) on a ground out during the fourth inning at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday, April 17, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Dodgers right-hander Landon Knack recovered from a brutal two-run, three-hit, 28-pitch first inning in his big-league debut to blank the Washington Nationals on one hit over the next four innings and keep the Dodgers within striking distance on Wednesday.

But the Dodgers never struck.

An offense that ranks second in the major leagues in runs and homers and fourth in on-base-plus-slugging percentage mustered only five hits off Nationals starter Jake Irvin and three relievers in a 2-0 loss before a matinee crowd of 44,428 in Chavez Ravine.

The top four batters in the Dodgers’ lineup, who had produced a big-league best .342 average and .973 OPS entering Wednesday, had only three hits — all singles by Shohei Ohtani — and one walk and struck out twice in 16 plate appearances. The Dodgers were hitless in seven at-bats with runners in scoring position.

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Irvin mixed his 96-mph fastball, 82-mph curve, 94-mph sinker and 92-mph cut-fastball to limit the Dodgers to four hits, striking out six and walking one to improve to 1-1 with a 3.13 ERA and help Washington win the series.

The Dodgers, who were shut out for the first time since a 9-0 loss to the Reds on July 30, have lost five of seven games. After hitting .294 as a team and averaging 6.3 runs while winning seven of their first nine games of the season, the Dodgers have hit .244 and averaged 4.1 runs while losing seven of their last 12.

“I think today we have to give Irvin a lot of credit,” manager Dave Roberts said. “It’s one of those things where we haven’t seen him before. He has a lively fastball, and it played up in the zone. He was riding it in on the right-handers. He threw some breaking balls. There were a lot of strikeouts and soft contact. Clearly, our guys weren’t seeing the ball well.”

The Nationals backed Irvin with three superb plays, second baseman Luis Garcia Jr. diving to his left to stop Freddie Freeman’s third-inning grounder and to his right to snag Gavin Lux’s fifth-inning grounder and first baseman Joey Meneses gloving Freeman’s 100-mph shot at the bag and throwing to second to complete a double play in the sixth.

Garcia made another Gold Glove-caliber play behind reliever Hunter Harvey to save a run in the eighth, diving his left to smother another Freeman grounder and throwing to first for the third out, stranding Ohtani at second base. Closer Kyle Finnegan retired the side in order in the ninth for his seventh save.

“They defended well,” Roberts said of the Nationals. “Garcia at second base took a lot of hits away from us.”

Knack, a 2020 third-round pick out of East Tennessee State, said he experienced a “welcome-to-the-big-leagues” moment as soon as he jogged to the mound before the first inning and looked up at the fourth deck in Dodger Stadium.

Dodgers outfielder James Outman is unable to catch a home run hit by the Nationals' CJ Abrams to lead off Wednesday's game.

“The second I walked out and picked up the ball, I kind of stood on the mound, looked up and it was like, ‘All right, we're here,’ ” Knack, 26, said. “I definitely had a little bit of nerves going.”

Knack’s second welcome-to-the-big-leagues moment came on his second pitch of his big-league career, a center-but 93-mph fastball that leadoff man CJ Abrams cranked 392 feet into the right-center field seats for a home run and a 1-0 Nationals lead.

Jesse Winker singled to left, took third on Garcia’s one-out single to right and scored on Meneses’ sacrifice fly to center for a 2-0 lead. Knack walked Joey Gallo to put two on with two outs but escaped further damage by striking out Nick Senzel with an 85-mph changeup, a whiff that seemed to calm Knack’s nerves.

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Knack retired the side in order in the second, third and fourth innings. Eddie Rosario led off the fifth with a single to center, but Knack induced a double-play grounder from Riley Adams and got Abrams to ground out to first to close out his five-inning, four-hit, two-run, four-strikeout, one-walk, 75-pitch effort.

“Toward the back end of [the first] inning I started to calm down, and after we got through the first, I got back to doing things normal,” Knack said. “It was more of a mindset. It was kind of slowing things down within myself, making sure to breathe, and after that, everything came out a lot smoother.”

Knack was the third Dodgers player to make his major league debut in this series, joining reliever Ricky Vanasco, who threw two perfect innings of relief on Monday night, and outfielder Andy Pages, who singled in his first plate appearance on Tuesday night.

The Dodgers weathered a slew of rotation injuries to win 100 games last season, leaning heavily on youngsters such as Bobby Miller, Emmet Sheehan and Michael Grove — who threw three hitless innings with four strikeouts on Wednesday — and top pitching prospect Gavin Stone earned a spot in this year’s opening-day rotation.

The fact they’ve won 12 of their first 21 games despite cycling through 21 pitchers already — they used all of 19 pitchers during their 1988 World Series-winning season — is a testament to the depth of an organization that has maintained a productive farm system while carrying one of baseball’s top five payrolls for 12 straight years.

“I think that whole narrative of how we spend overall on payroll gets lost when you're talking about how we can backfill with homegrown players,” manager Dave Roberts said. “Shout out to Billy Gasparino [vice president of baseball operations] and our player development and scouting guys. … I think we identify a lot of good talent, a lot of good makeup players, and we develop them.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.