You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and Jackson Rutledge will forever have to accept the disappointment that was his major league debut.
If he keeps doing what he’s done since that night in Pittsburgh, Rutledge will ensure fewer and fewer people remember that performance and instead focus on everything else he’s done on the mound for the Nationals.
With another impressive outing today, this time against the toughest lineup he’s faced to date, Rutledge put himself in position for his first major league win and watched his Nationals teammates finish off the Braves, 3-2, to take the opener of a day-night doubleheader.
The 6-foot-8 right-hander had no trouble with Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, Matt Olson and Co., tossing five innings of one-run ball on 86 pitches. He walked off the field to applause from an announced crowd of 31,989 that withstood on-and-off rain in what originally was supposed to be the Nats’ home finale but instead will be the penultimate game on South Capitol Street, with the makeup of Saturday’s rainout still to come at 6:35 p.m.
"It just tells me that I belong here," Rutledge said. "I can do it against ... one of the best lineups in baseball. I'm able to have success. That kind of gives me confidence moving forward."
The win was the Nationals’ 69th of the season, giving them six more cracks at reaching the 70-win mark and a 15-game improvement from one year ago.
Rutledge entered the day having made two big league starts with drastically different results. After getting roughed up by the Pirates for seven runs in 3 2/3 innings in his debut, the tall righty rebounded nicely in his home debut, reaching the seventh inning and allowing only two runs to the White Sox.
Today posed a new challenge for Rutledge, with the majors’ most feared lineup staring him down from the batter’s box. But if he was intimidated by the Braves, the rookie didn’t show it in the least.
"I like what I'm seeing," manager Davey Martinez said. "He bears down. He's pitching in big moments and doing well. Today was a little bit of a growth moment for him."
The only run Rutledge allowed came via a second-inning sacrifice fly, and that scenario was made possible only after Luis García failed to make a play on a sharp grounder to his right that could’ve produced an inning-ending, 4-6-3 double play.
Rutledge would allow only two more Atlanta batters to reach base the rest of his afternoon, and he finished with a flourish. With a runner on second and one out in the fifth, he struck out Luke Williams looking at a fastball, then blew away Acuña with a high fastball to end the inning, pumping his fist as he hopped off the mound.
"There was no panic. There was no worry," he said. "It was: 'I know where I'm going to put this pitch. If I get it there, I'm going to beat him.' And I did."
The Nationals put Rutledge in position to earn his first career win with some opportunistic offense, though they would’ve put themselves in a much more comfortable position had they taken advantage of a few more of those opportunities.
They went 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position in five innings against Braves fill-in starter Allan Winans, mirroring their comparable performance in Friday night’s series opener. They did, however, get meaningful production from their No. 9 hitter, on a day when they certainly needed it.
Jacob Young began his day receiving the “Nationals Way” award for his ascension through four levels of the organization throughout the season. Then he showed off his particular set of skills throughout the game.
Young beat out an infield single to drive in the Nats’ first run. He was hit by a 3-2 pitch in the fourth. He hit a rocket up the middle with two outs in the sixth and wound up with an RBI hustle double. And he tracked down a drive to the warning track in left-center for good measure.
"It's a lot of fun when you can make a big play for the team on defense, and then drive couple runs in," Young said. "It just feels good to contribute like that and win a game against Atlanta like that."
Martinez entrusted the final four innings to a bullpen that was rested, thanks to Saturday’s rainout. Robert Garcia delivered two scoreless frames to bridge the gap from Rutledge to the back-end guys. Hunter Harvey pitched a perfect eighth, and though Kyle Finnegan surrendered a two-out homer to Sean Murphy in the ninth, he still hung on to ensure a positive start to a long day and night at the ballpark.
"We're not being aggressive right now with guys on base," Martinez said. "So we've got to think of other ways (to score). We should've scored some more runs earlier. We've got to figure out ways to win games here at the end until we can get that big hit. But they're doing fine."