Jackson Tetreault found himself standing on the mound at Nationals Park at 7:06 p.m., a 26-year-old, seventh-round pick in the 2017 draft realizing a lifelong dream, starting a big league game. And when the right-hander proceeded to strike out Braves leadoff man Ronald Acuña Jr. on a high, 97-mph fastball, the impossible seemed possible, if only for a fleeting moment.
That moment indeed was fleeting, because the Acuña strikeout was followed by a no-doubt Dansby Swanson homer to left, which was followed by another run an inning later, which was followed by five more runs (including two more homers) the inning after that, leaving the Nats in a big hole they wouldn’t escape en route to a 10-4 loss.
"Early on, I just made sure I looked around, took it all in, said hi to the family, all that," Tetreault said. "But after that, it was good. Obviously not the result I was looking for, but I'm not going to shy away. I'm eager to get back out there and throw again. Just happy to get the first one under my belt. An awesome experience."
That Tetreault, who isn’t listed among the organization’s top prospects, found himself in this situation was more a reflection of the drastic pitching predicament the Nationals found themselves in than of his particular resume. After Stephen Strasburg went on the 15-day injured list with a stress reaction in his ribs and Josiah Gray had to be scratched from Monday night’s start after warming up just before a lengthy rain delay, the Nats simply needed somebody to start this game capable of throwing 90 or more pitches.
And with their higher-ranked prospects all off-schedule, the call was placed to Tetreault, who last started for Triple-A Rochester on Thursday and thus was good to go.
It wasn’t exactly a fair situation to thrust the unassuming righty into, facing a Braves team that has been on fire and tonight won its 13th straight game. But the Nats didn’t have much choice, not only to start Tetreault but to leave him on the mound for four innings despite the results and rising pitch count.
"I thought he attacked the zone and went after them," catcher Riley Adams said. "But just made a few too many mistakes there."
Nor did it help at all that the Nationals lineup was without its biggest star for the first time this season. Juan Soto, who slipped in the dugout and banged his right knee on the corner of the bench late in Monday’s loss, was held out, though manager Davey Martinez expects him to return to the lineup for Wednesday’s series finale.
The group of hitters that remained tonight eventually figured out Braves lefty Max Fried, scoring three runs in the bottom of the third and then another in the bottom of the sixth to prevent this game from being a complete blowout. Given the way the evening began, with Fried striking out the first five batters he faced, that felt like a win for the home team.
Amid that, Tetreault was tasked with keeping the game close. He wasn’t able to do that, despite an impressive-looking repertoire that included a fastball that topped out at 98 mph, plus a cutter, slider and curveball that all produced multiple swings-and-misses.
"You know what? He's got good stuff," Martinez said. "I think he was a little bit amped up. He came out throwing really hard, but he was a little bit erratic. They fouled off some pretty good pitches. But I think next outing will be much better, because I think he'll settle down a little bit."
The third inning was most painful to watch, Tetreault serving up back-to-back homers to Travis d’Arnaud and Marcell Ozuna to leave the Nationals trailing 6-0. Under any other circumstances, Martinez would’ve walked to the mound to make a pitching change right then and there. Under these circumstances, with a bullpen that already had been asked to throw way too many innings the last few days, the manager not only left his rookie starter out there to take the beating but didn’t even have anybody warming up just in case.
"Our bullpen is beat up," Martinez said. "I talked to him a little bit about that when he came out. I think he understood."
To his credit, Tetreault escaped the third, striking out Acuña for the second time. And then he retired the side in the fourth to end his 91-pitch night on a more uplifting note.
"I'm not going to shy away from strong lineups," he said. "You want to face those guys and learn and get better, and I think that's what happened tonight."
Andres Machado, just-promoted Reed Garrett and Francisco Pérez then combined to pitch the final five innings, with Machado giving up back-to-back homers in the sixth for good measure. So it was that seven of tonight’s nine innings were thrown by the three pitchers called up from Rochester today.
So did the fifth day of an 11-games-in-10-days homestand come and go with a third straight loss. All the Nationals can do now is try to come up with a pitching plan for Wednesday, hoping Erick Fedde can provide quality and length and get the entire state of affairs somewhat back to normal. Patrick Corbin is likely to follow Thursday in the opener of a five-game series with the equally hot Phillies, with Evan Lee ticketed to start one of Friday’s doubleheader games and perhaps Gray ready to start the other.
The thought of what's still to come before the week is over is daunting. Somehow, these guys must not get caught up in it.
"It's a simple answer, but you just can't," Adams said. "You only have the game in front of you. Now we've got to get ready for tomorrow and get prepared for that. That's all we can really think about."