Reworked bullpen wraps up a win ignited by Strasburg, Zimmerman

ATLANTA - There are any number of key moments in a one-run game, and there were plenty to choose from in the Nationals’ 3-2 victory over the Braves tonight. But the one that may resonate the most, the one that felt like the most significant moment in this game, came from a guy who had all but disappeared from the roster.

Perez-Throws-Gray-Sidebar.jpgOliver Pérez was last seen on the mound throwing a pitch 12 days ago, way back on April 8, as one of the four relievers forced to put in yeoman’s work after Jeremy Guthrie gave up 10 runs in two-thirds of an inning in Philadelphia. He had been healthy since, and he had been available. The proper situation to call upon him - typically a one- or two-batter matchup against a left-handed hitter - simply hadn’t come up.

Dusty Baker had been telling his veteran lefty to stay sharp, though, knowing his time would be coming soon, especially after Sammy Solis was placed on the 10-day disabled list Wednesday with elbow inflammation.

“I talked to him yesterday,” Baker said. “I said: ‘Hey man, you’re going to get a lot of work here soon.’ Ollie knows how to stay ready. He has a great attitude about staying ready.”

Great attitude or not, Pérez went from sitting in the bullpen unused for nearly two weeks to being thrown into the lion’s den tonight. His assignment: Protect a one-run lead in the bottom of the eighth by retiring one left-handed batter. That batter: Freddie Freeman, perhaps the hottest hitter on the planet right now and definitely the Nationals’ most-feared opponent.

“He’s a really good hitter right now,” Pérez said. “I’ve been facing him a lot. ... You just have to think it pitch-by-pitch, because he’s a very good hitter. You don’t want to make a mistake, because he’s really hot right now.”

Pérez wound up needing only two pitches to dispose of Freeman, inducing a weak fly ball to left. That capped a perfect night for the Nationals’ staff against the Braves slugger, who entered the evening with an .875 on-base percentage and 1.400 slugging percentage in this series but went 0-for-4 against Pérez and Stephen Strasburg.

“You never want to see Freddie Freeman up there, but finally tonight we corralled Freddie,” Baker said. “Now Freddie is somebody else’s problem.”

The Nationals won this game in part because they were able to contain Freeman at last, because Strasburg pitched seven strong innings and struck out 10, because half of the guys in the field made highlight-reel defensive plays and because Ryan Zimmerman continued his torrid stretch at the plate to begin the season.

Zimmerman turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the sixth when he crushed a knuckleball from R.A. Dickey to center field for his second homer in 24 hours and his fifth in 15 games this season. He also doubled to right-center in the top of the second, personally accounting for six of the seven total bases the Nationals managed against Dickey.

The 42-year-old’s knuckleball left most of the lineup flummoxed for seven innings. Zimmerman, though, had faced Dickey more than anybody else on the roster, by a considerable margin, having gone 9-for-31 with a homer in his career against the former Mets hurler.

When everyone else struggled to elevate Dickey’s knuckleball, the veteran first baseman found a way.

“He’s got a good one,” Zimmerman said. “He seems to be able to do things with it, whether he wants to cut it or sink it, or he throws the hard one most of the time, or every once in a while throws the soft one. But yeah, we’ve faced him a good amount of times now. I don’t want to say it’s comfortable, ‘cause when he has a good one going, it’s not easy. But having faced him a few times before, you at least know what to expect.”

The Nationals still needed six outs from their bullpen to secure this victory, with no margin for error given their one-run lead. Once Pérez got out number one, Baker turned to his new end-of-game tandem to finish it off.

Koda Glover retired both Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis to complete a 1-2-3 eighth. Shawn Kelley then got himself into a two-out jam in the ninth when Kurt Suzuki singled and Tyler Flowers drew a five-pitch walk, but Kelley rebounded to get Ender Inciarte to fly out to end the game. Kelley notched his second save of the series.

“I know the ol’ kind of ‘Don’t want to put the guy in scoring position,’ but at the same time I like my matchup a little bit better with Inciarte once I fell behind (Flowers),” Kelley explained. “That was what I wanted to do. It worked out in the grand scheme of things. Probably made some people nervous and didn’t look attractive. But that was my plan to Flowers, was to put him away - no matter what the count was - with sliders. And he took, so it’s fine. Onto the next one.”

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