For the second straight afternoon, the Nationals lost a starting pitcher by the fourth inning. This time, they still managed to find a way to win.
Despite the early departure of Joe Ross, pulled in the top of the fourth with his velocity diminished, the Nationals rode a wave of clutch hits and solid relief work to a 10-5 victory over the Braves to close out the first half of the season on a high note.
Matt Wieters drove in three runs, Anthony Rendon drove in two, Ryan Zimmerman and Chris Heisey drove in one a piece and Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy provided some big insurance runs late to pace a well-balanced offensive attack the day after this lineup was shut out for the first time in 2017.
Matt Grace, Enny Romero, Oliver Pérez and Matt Albers, meanwhile, took over on the mound after Ross was pulled and secured the victory, with Romero pitching out of an eighth-inning jam against the heart of the Atlanta lineup with the tying run at the plate and Albers recording the final three outs after his teammates extended the lead.
With the victory, the Nationals split their four-game series with the Braves and enter the All-Star break with a 9 1/2-game lead over Atlanta. They closed out perhaps the toughest portion of their schedule - 37 games planned in 38 days, though one wound up being postponed - with a 19-17 record to keep themselves 16 games over the .500 mark.
The Nationals had Sean Newcomb on the ropes from the get-go, loading the bases with nobody out in the bottom of the first against the Braves left-hander. All three runners came around to score, two of them on Rendon’s two-out double to left-center.
But that 3-0 lead didn’t hold up long. Nor did Ross’ arm. The right-hander got through the first two innings unscathed, but his fastball velocity was notably down (registering 88-89 mph). Then the results followed suit. Despite getting ahead in the count to both Ender Inciarte and Johan Camargo with two outs in the third, Ross wound up walking both batters.
And that brought Freddie Freeman to the plate with men on base. Which, as any semi-regular Nationals observer can tell you, is a less-than-ideal situation. Sure enough, Freeman launched a three-run homer to left-center, tying the game and adding yet another notch to the belt with which he routinely beats the Nats.
Freeman has played 8.7 percent of his games in the major leagues against the Nationals. His production far exceeds that: 12 percent of his RBIs, 13 percent of his hits and 15 percent of his career doubles have come against Washington, making him one of the most disliked people in town.
Ross got out of the third inning, but his time on the mound in the fourth was brief. After retiring Nick Markakis on a flyball to left, but with his fastball now down to 87 mph, he was visited by head athletic trainer Paul Lessard and pitching coach Mike Maddux. After a short conversation, Ross departed and Grace hurried in from the bullpen, the second time in as many days the Nationals’ starter failed to get through the fourth inning. (Stephen Strasburg took a comebacker off his hip Saturday and was pulled after the third inning.)
Grace did an admirable job over the course of 2 2/3 innings of relief. Camargo’s leadoff homer in the sixth and then another run made possible by Bryce Harper’s misplay of Freeman’s single to right resulted in two Atlanta runs, but the Nationals had already taken a lead prior to that point thanks to clutch hits by Heisey (RBI double off the wall in the fourth) and Wieters (two-run single in the fifth).
Wieters added another RBI with a sacrifice fly in the seventh, and thus the Nationals carried a 7-5 lead into the late innings. That lead grew to 10-5 after three insurance runs in the eighth supplied by Harper (RBI single) and Murphy (two-run single).
And with that, the Nationals scored 10 or more runs in a game started by Ross for the eighth time in 13 chances this season, maintaining their average run support for the right-hander.