The bullpen was called upon to keep the Nationals in the game Sunday and it did its job.
Starter Joe Ross was held to just 3 1/3 innings, leaving with what manager Dusty Baker described as “triceps tenderness.” Left-hander Matt Grace followed, and along with four other relievers, held the Braves to two runs the rest of the way, a span of 5 2/3 frames.
Grace ended up finishing 2 2/3 innings, allowing two hits and only one earned run (two runs overall) with one walk and one strikeout. It was his first win of the season.
“I just got into that situation where I needed to make pitches and kind of step up right there and bridge that gap to the later innings of the game,” Grace said. “Just kind of take the approach of just need to attack guys and try to keep the ball down and get some ground balls and just keep us in that game.”
Grace has now allowed only one earned run in five appearances since June 29. In his last 5 1/3 innings, opponents have only four hits and he has struck out five. Earlier this season, Grace was stuck on the yo-yo, going back and forth to Triple-A Syracuse.
Some might have thought with the return of veteran southpaw Sammy Solís that Grace might be headed back again. But Grace stayed in the ‘pen. He said one reason for his recent upward trend might be using his changeup more in high-leverage situations. He trimmed his ERA to 3.93.
“It’s been good,” Grace said Sunday of his first-half work. “But just staying aggressive, attacking hitters. I think I’m starting to throw my changeup a little bit more, too, especially to right-handed hitters. I think that helped kind of today in situations where I fell behind 1-0, and was able to mix the changeup in there and kind of get them off-balance, but hung some sliders, too, which I wasn’t too thrilled about. The changeup helped me out today a little bit.”
One other matchup that stood out from Sunday’s 10-5 win over the Braves was reliever Enny Romero facing off against the lethal bat of Freddie Freeman. Earlier in the game, Freeman had launched a three-run shot over the left-center field wall that tied the game at 3-3.
Many in the crowd were screaming for the Nats to walk Freeman when he came up in the eighth with a man on and the Nats holding a 7-5 lead. But Romero unleashed 101 mph and 102 mph fastballs and went after Freeman, eventually striking him out. Grace was impressed with the result.
“That’s a huge at-bat,” Grace said. “You need to attack him like any other guy. If you get in your head that he’s already got you beat, then that’s not going to do anything for you. That was a huge at-bat right there and good for him for just going after it and attacking it.”
Baker said Romero was well rested and he was willing to let Romero go for it in that situation.
“Well, I mean he was strong. He hadn’t pitched, I think, in five or six days,” Baker contended. “He hit 100 (mph) quite a few times, but you still have to improve on his command a little bit. I’d like to see him get a second pitch that he can at least be comfortable with. He has one, but I don’t think he feels comfortable throwing it yet.”
And with the first half in the books, the Nats know they must get better in a few areas, especially their consistency in the bullpen. Grace takes a realistic viewpoint.
“I know everyone’s talking about the bullpen right now, but what is there, other to do than to just continue to make pitches and continue to scrap and get after it?” Grace said. “You can look at it two ways: You either keep fighting, keep trusting the process or you don’t, so there’s nothing else more to do about it. Everyone in this bullpen is capable of doing it, it’s just a matter at some point, it could be two months down the line, we’re going to need to be relied upon, so it’s just a matter of doing it.”
Update: Nats top prospect Victor Robles went 0-for-1 with a sacrifice fly RBI as the Team USA defeated the World team 7-6 in the All-Star Futures Game on Sunday in Miami. He played left field and center field as a replacement for Alex Verdugo for the World team.