DENVER - The Rockies had just scored two runs to cut the Nationals’ lead in half.
A 4-0 ballgame had quickly become 4-2 in the sixth, and after Doug Fister walked DJ LeMahieu, the seventh batter of the frame, the bases were loaded and the tying run was standing on second base.
Manager Matt Williams came to the mound to make a pitching change. He extended his right arm, signaling for Aaron Barrett, the 26-year-old right-hander in his rookie season.
Barrett had been in a bit of a rough patch of late, seeing his ERA rise from 1.67 to 2.64 over his previous five appearances. He’d never before pitched in Coors Field, a nightmare of a ballpark for pitchers. But Barrett was the guy who Williams was entrusting with this situation.
Barrett threw just five pitches, but he got the job done, striking out Brandon Barnes and leaving the bases loaded. The Nationals ended up adding three insurance runs, turning a tight ballgame into a comfortable five-run victory. But in a hitter’s ballpark and with the Rockies mounting a potential game-changing rally in the sixth, Barrett’s effort was appreciated by teammates and coaches alike.
“That was, in my eyes, the turning point of the game,” shortstop Ian Desmond said.
Of the five pitches Barrett threw Barnes, four were sliders. He threw a get-me-over slider for a called strike to open the at-bat, then went with a 95 mph fastball that Barnes fouled off to get ahead in the count 0-2.
Three straight sliders followed. The first was fouled off. The second was taken for a ball. The third started knee-high, and nearly the entire way to the plate appeared to be ticketed for the bottom of the strike zone. Barnes tried to protect with two strikes and swung through the pitch, which dropped off the table about two-thirds of the way there, and Wilson Ramos corralled the ball and stepped on home plate to secure the final out of the inning.
The bases were left full of Rockies, the Nationals would add two runs in the next half-inning, and the home team wouldn’t get another chance to get back into the ballgame.
“That’s huge,” second baseman Danny Espinosa said. “They get a base hit, game’s tied. You never know if that inning extends farther or they get hits. But momentum can swing right there. For him to come in and shut that down right there, that was a great job.”
Barrett’s not new to those types of situations. In 11 of his 36 appearances this season, Barrett has come on with at least two runners on base, called upon to try and limit the damage and get the Nats out of a jam.
Williams says that those are the type of spots he feels Barrett thrives in, and so he went to his hard-throwing right-hander last night, despite the fact that Barrett is still relatively new to the big leagues and wasn’t experienced with dealing with Coors Field, where routine fly balls turn into extra-base hits and breaking pitches don’t break as much because of the altitude and thin air.
“I’ve been put in that spot a couple times this year, which has helped me prepare for that moment,” Barrett said. “I think, for me, it’s about getting strike one and attacking right out of the gate. Just try to keep a simple mindset and go right after him. I was able to make pitches when I had to, and just get us out of the jam.”
Barrett said he noticed his slider was backing up on him a bit during his tosses in the bullpen, and so he made an adjustment to ensure he got the necessary break on the pitch once he came into the game. He focused on staying through the pitch, finishing it and trying to keep it down in the zone.
The final slider to Barnes was located perfectly, and it got the desired result. Barrett came through with a big out in a big spot in a ballpark that feels pretty tiny, and the Nationals kept on rolling.