Overtaxed pitching staff suffers 4-2 walk-off loss to Braves

ATLANTA - After going 14 innings on Saturday, after watching Jeremy Hellickson depart with an apparent hamstring injury in the first inning today and then after watching the Braves rally to tie the game late, the Nationals reached a point late this afternoon where the need for their series finale to end was about to become more important than the need to win.

That point didn't quite arrive, but it came close. The Nationals were forced to send Tanner Roark to the mound for the bottom of the ninth, three days after he threw 98 pitches in the opener of this series, and the right-hander proceeded to give up the two-run homer to Charlie Culberson that sent Atlanta to a 4-2 walk-off victory.

Roark was the Nationals' fifth reliever of the afternoon, the second starter-turned-reliever after Hellickson departed early with his injury. Rookie Jefry Rodriguez, three days after an 87-pitch start for Double-A Harrisburg, threw 63 pitches over 4 2/3 scoreless innings. Sammy Solís, Shawn Kelley and Brandon Kintzler each threw an inning. And with Justin Miller, Ryan Madson and possibly Wander Suero all unavailable, manager Davey Martinez was forced to send Roark to the mound in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game.

Roark proceeded to surrender a one-out double to Dansby Swanson - a double made possible only after a replay review showed Swanson's slide into second base narrowly beat Wilmer DIfo's tag - and then surrendered Culberson's no-doubt homer to left.

The Nationals thus lost 3-of-4 over the weekend and saw their 1/2-game lead over the Braves turn into a 1 1/2-game deficit.

Hellickson-Red-Leaves-Injured.jpgThough they typically don't ask for more than five or six innings out of Hellickson, the Nationals were willing to push the right-hander a bit farther today, given the state of their bullpen. Then the exact opposite scenario played out, forcing Martinez to turn to his taxed relief corps way earlier than anyone hoped would be necessary.

Hellickson retired Braves leadoff man Ender Inciarte to open his afternoon, then got Ozzie Albies to ground to the right side moments later. But Mark Reynolds' underhand feed to first was high, forcing Hellickson to try to make a leaping catch. The ball caromed off his glove, and then the pitcher grabbed his right hamstring as he came to a stop in foul territory.

After a short conversation with Martinez and director of athletic training Paul Lessard, Hellickson departed having thrown only four pitches, and Martinez signaled for Rodriguez from the bullpen.

The Nationals didn't know what they could reasonably expect from Rodriguez, who was promoted only because Tim Collins was placed on the paternity leave list this morning. Given the 87 pitches he threw only three days ago, it seemed unlikely he'd be able to give them more than three innings.

Except Rodriguez was not only effective, he was efficient, as well. He needed only two pitches to record two outs in the first. He got through the third on 35 pitches. He got through the fourth on 51 pitches. And so he was allowed to pitch the fifth, which he completed in 12 pitches, bringing his total to 63.

That stretched the Nationals' streak of scoreless relief innings to 22 2/3, and they added another to that when Solís posted a zero in the bottom of the sixth. But then Kelley entered for the bottom of the seventh, and the Braves finally broke through. Swanson hammered a 2-0 pitch deep to left for the game-tying homer, the latest big blow against Kelley.

Over the span of 36 1/3 innings the last two seasons, Kelley has now surrendered 16 home runs.

This one was all the more damaging because it forced the Nationals to plate at least one more run in order to win this game, a task that grew more difficult as the afternoon progressed. Trea Turner's two-run homer in the top of the third staked them to a lead, but Michael A. Taylor's bloop double in the fifth represented their only other hit through the eighth.

The Nationals had a chance to score the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth with two on and nobody out. But rookie Juan Soto didn't tag up on Reynolds' flyout to deep center field, and then Brian Goodwin and Taylor each struck out to strand their teammate in scoring position.

Worst-case scenario plays out for Nats bullpen in ...
Hellickson out after two batters with hamstring in...

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