ATLANTA – Davey Martinez was prepared to go to his “A” bullpen again tonight, prepared to ask Hunter Harvey and Kyle Finnegan to close out one more game that was there for the taking late.
Just one problem: The Nationals lineup couldn’t do its part to make up a two-run deficit to the Braves. Or score after the first inning, for that matter.
Despite jumping out to a quick lead against Atlanta ace Spencer Strider, the Nats went silent at the plate the rest of the night and wound up losing 5-3 in the season’s penultimate game.
So instead of handing the ball to Harvey and Finnegan at the end, Martinez instead went to Cory Abbott and, ultimately, Tanner Rainey, who pitched the bottom of the eighth in his first major league appearance since July 10, 2022, after which he needed Tommy John surgery.
Rainey, at one point last season the Nationals’ closer, tossed a scoreless inning allowing an infield single and a walk on 18 pitches, his fastball hitting 96-97 mph, his slider striking out Orlando Arcia. It was just one more step – albeit a big one – in a long-term rehab plan the team hopes ends with the hard-throwing right-hander holding a prominent role in next year’s bullpen.
"As good as it could've gone," he said. "The walk, that's part of it. I've done it my whole career. I obviously didn't want to do it tonight, but being back out there healthy and getting to throw, it makes the 14 months seem worth it."
Rainey’s return was perhaps the emotional high point of the night for the Nats, who didn’t have a whole lot of reason to get excited en route to their 91st loss of the season.
With team objectives having already been settled at this point, both squads took the field tonight with some personal goals in mind above all else. For the Braves, that meant getting Strider three more strikeouts to break John Smoltz’s single-season franchise record and getting him out of the game with a lead so he could have a shot at his 20th win.
One inning in, Strider had his three strikeouts, giving him 278 on the season, but he also had a 3-0 deficit staring at him in the face after the Nationals roughed him up a bit.
CJ Abrams led off with a single and then stole second, leaving him one shy of Trea Turner’s single-season club record of 46. The heart of the lineup then took care of the rest, with Keibert Ruiz, Joey Meneses and Luis García each delivering RBI hits to plate three runs and force Strider to throw 36 pitches just to complete one inning (which he ended with an ERA higher than the Nats’ Josiah Gray’s 3.91 mark).
"We just weren't missing mistakes by Strider," Ruiz said. "He's really good pitcher. He's got a really good fastball, and the breaking ball is good. But we just got ahead early with the fastball, and we didn't miss the pitches in the middle."
Strider, though, would settle in after that and ultimately complete five innings having allowed only those initial three runs. And he wound indeed depart in line for the win, thanks to his teammates’ fifth-inning rally.
Joan Adon made it through his first four innings with only one run charged to his name, but that doesn’t tell the full story of his start. The right-hander surrendered a hit in each of those four innings, walked a pair and sported a pitch count of 79 at the end of it all.
"It's very difficult," he said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "When the at-bats go long, they've seen all my pitches. It makes it more and more difficult to get them out. I felt like I mixed it up a little too much early this game, so towards the later innings they had seen all my pitches. They were able to make better adjustments."
Having already used six relievers to pull off Friday night’s win, Martinez wanted length from his starter tonight. So Adon was back to the mound for the bottom of the fifth. Two batters and two hits later, he was headed back for the dugout, Martinez forced to go to the bullpen yet again.
It did not go well. Jordan Weems faced three batters, the last of whom was Marcell Ozuna, who crushed a 96 mph fastball to straightaway center field for a three-run homer that flipped the game to the Braves and put Strider in line for the win.
Martinez would make two more pitching changes before the fifth inning finally ended. No more runs would be scored, but the Nationals still needed to mount some kind of late rally to make it all worth it.
"I thought we'd score some more runs," the manager said. "But (Strider) is a good pitcher, as we all know. We jumped out early, got three runs. But it's about not being able to get more than four (innings) from Adon. The pitch count gets up there on him, and we have to go to the bullpen right away."