ANAHEIM, Calif. – On paper, the heart of the Angels batting order looks as intimidating as any in baseball. Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani and Anthony Rendon are as accomplished a 2-3-4 trio as you’ll find in the sport, and even if they haven't been collectively performing up to their usual standards this season, there’s no denying the presence each has when he steps into the box.
For 26 innings this weekend, the Nationals pitching staff did just about everything it could to hold that fearsome trio in check.
They just couldn't do it in the 27th inning.
Needing one more out to complete a Sunday afternoon win and a series victory, Tanner Rainey gave up a game-tying double to Ohtani, then the game-winning single to Rendon that handed the Nats a gut-wrenching, 5-4 loss.
"I thought we did well pitching to those guys all series," manager Davey Martinez said inside a quiet visitors' clubhouse. "You’re playing with fire when those guys come up in the middle of that order, and you saw what they can do really quick.”
Rainey, who had yet to allow a run in eight appearances this season and had successfully converted all three of his save opportunities, was on the verge of pulling it off. He opened the ninth striking out Jack Mayfield but then walked pinch-hitter Luis Rengifo on five pitches before surrendering a single to Taylor Ward. That ensured the big boys would get one more chance to bat before day's end.
"Like I've talked about previously, the walks. The walk there leads to an extra baserunner," said Rainey, who had walked only one of the first 31 batters he faced in 2022. "Where if you make the pitches there, even if he gets a hit, make him earn it. You give him the free base, and that makes it tough."
Even so, Rainey had another big pitch in him, striking out Trout on a 97 mph fastball for the second out of the inning. But then he left an inside 0-1 slider at the belt to Ohtani, who belted a drive to deep left-center, just past a lunging Victor Robles at the wall, for the game-tying double.
"I was hoping (Robles) could maybe get it while it hit the wall and get it on one hop on the bounce and maybe get it back in," Martinez said. "But he hit the ball hard."
Moments later, with the winning run now on second and first base open, Rendon - the former Nationals star who had been held in complete check all weekend in his first series against his old team - got on top of a high 97 mph fastball and lined a single to center, with Robles' throw to the plate coming up just a bit too late to get a sliding Ohtani as a crowd of 32,337 roared with delight.
"Didn't make the pitch," Rainey said. "I was trying to go up, didn't quite get it up enough. Too much of the plate. Another guy that you just can't miss with him. That whole lineup's tough. You miss too much plate, and they do damage. That's what ended up costing us the game."
Rendon, who was mobbed by his Angels teammates in shallow center field as some of his former teammates tried to wade their way through the celebration and return to the visitors' dugout, needed that game-winning hit simply to raise his season batting average to .213, his OPS to .683.
"I'll hit .200 as long as we keep winning games," he told reporters in the Angels clubhouse. "Yeah, it sucks (to be struggling). It's frustrating, but I mean, not many people get to feel what we felt when we won the World Series and to be the last team standing. That means a lot more than any personal accomplishment that we can do. It's a team game. It's not like playing golf."
Prior to that final sequence, Nationals pitching had held Trout, Ohtani and Rendon to a combined 5-for-34 with one double, three RBIs and three walks (one intentional) while striking them out 10 times in total.
Kyle Finnegan had mowed them all down in the seventh, striking out Trout looking at a 97 mph fastball, then Ohtani swinging at a 96 mph fastball, then Rendon looking at a 97 mph fastball. Austin Voth also struck out a pair during a perfect eighth, setting the stage for Rainey to either finish the job or, as it turned out, take the loss.
The Nationals finished their West Coast trip 4-5, some improvement for a club that left D.C. 10 days ago on an eight-game losing streak, but not enough to feel completely satisfied.
Today’s start was far from Erick Fedde at his best, and he’d be the first to admit it, though he was ultimately successful. The right-hander had to pitch his way out of jams three times in his first four innings despite allowing only two hits along the way, one of them a gifted bunt single by Tyler Wade with the infield shifted.
Five walks were Fedde’s undoing, an unusually high total that left his pitch count climbing and climbing and ensured he wouldn’t be around for long this afternoon, no matter the result.
To his credit, though, Fedde bore down and made pitches when he absolutely needed to. He got Max Stassi to ground out with the bases loaded in the first. He got out of another jam in the third, thanks to a nifty play by shortstop Alcides Escobar and then a nifty play of his own on Brandon Walsh’s comebacker. And then with two on and two out in the fourth, Fedde struck out Taylor Ward looking at a 2-2 cutter and hopped off the mound with glee.
His pitch count already at 78, Fedde was given a chance to face the heart of the Angels lineup for the third time. He responded with a 1-2-3 bottom of the fifth, retiring none other than Trout, Ohtani and Rendon in succession to end his afternoon with 97 pitches thrown but a zero in the run column.
"It was a grind the whole day," he said. "I really felt like I just had one pitch for the most part, and it was my cutter. If anything, it gives me more confidence just to have a lot of success with it. Just one of those ones where it’s the difference in a bad outing or a good one, being able to make the pitches when I needed to. The walks suck, but I'll take the zero any day."
The Nationals left Fedde in position to earn the win thanks to just enough offense at the right moments. They plated four runs through seven innings via 11 hits (all singles) and three walks, failing to produce an extra-base hit and needing to squeeze everything they could out of the few clutch hits they got.
They took a 1-0 lead in the third on Juan Soto’s RBI grounder to second, only the second time this season the star slugger has driven in someone other than himself. They tacked on two more runs in the seventh on Lane Thomas’ sacrifice fly and Escobar’s two-out RBI single to center, though Riley Adams ran into the third out on the back end of the play trying to advance when Trout momentarily bobbled the ball in center.
Three straight singles by César Hernández, Soto and Josh Bell extended the lead to 4-2 in the seventh, but there were opportunities to extend it even further.
"The couple times we got guys on third base with less than two outs, we've got to move the baseball there and get those guys in," Martinez said. "We score those two runs, and it's a different ninth inning. We've just got to focus on moving the baseball in those situations and drive the guys in."
Of course, those four runs would've been enough had the Nationals been able to contain the Angels' big boppers one final time in the bottom of the ninth. Alas, they could not, and were forced to watch one of the best who ever played for them celebrate his game-winning hit against them.
"It's always strange seeing guys in different uniforms, especially ones that have such a special place in your heart, for sure," Fedde said. "It's tough when he has the game-winning hit, but he's a great player, and sometimes that's going to happen."