At the end of a brutal homestand that included 11 games in 10 days and left their pitching staff in shambles, the Nationals handed the ball to Jackson Tetreault, held their breath and hoped for the best.
Seven sparkling innings later, they exhaled and exulted, having watched the rookie right-hander author one of their best starts of the season, turning in the kind of pitching performance they desperately needed all week but finally got at the very end to emerge with a cathartic 9-3 victory over the Phillies.
Five days after an inauspicious major league debut, Tetreault put together a dazzling start against a tough lineup to earn his first career win and snap his team’s eight-game losing streak, not to mention a club record 12-game losing streak to the Phillies that extended back to last season.
"It's awesome," the seventh-round pick from the 2017 draft said. "Hopefully many more to come, but to get the first one under the belt is a really good feeling. And to be able to celebrate it with all the guys here was really cool."
Aided by an opportunistic lineup that got home runs from Juan Soto and Maikel Franco, Tetreault became only the third Nationals starter to complete seven innings this season, joining Erick Fedde and Patrick Corbin, who surprisingly did it on back-to-back nights at Coors Field in early May.
"He threw a gem today," manager Davey Martinez said. "He controlled the strike zone. He seemed a little more under control today than he did in his first outing, which is expected."
The circumstances surrounding Tetreault’s major league debut five days ago were pretty haphazard. Summoned from Rochester after Stephen Strasburg had to be scratched with what turned out to be a stress reaction in his ribs, the 26-year-old did the best he could but was done in by a fearsome Braves lineup to the tune of seven runs and 91 pitches in only four innings.
Martinez insisted that evening Tetreault would get another shot at the end of the week, and the righty made sure he made the most of it.
"That last start, I was just super hyped up with a bunch of adrenaline and just out of whack," the rookie said. "My timing was off. I think this time I was just more compact, more in my delivery. I have a few cues that get me back into my rhythm, and I really leaned into those today to bounce back from the last start."
A seven-pitch top of the first got the ball rolling in the right direction, and Tetreault never looked back. The only runs he allowed (two in the fourth, one in the fifth) were unearned, the byproduct of a deep fly ball to center dropped by Lane Thomas and an errant pickoff throw by Keibert Ruiz.
Throughout the afternoon, Tetreault kept his pitch count manageable, issuing only two walks. And he did all this throwing almost exclusively fastballs and cutters, sprinkling in only eight curveballs and four changeups.
His most impressive work may have come in his final inning. Given a chance to return for the seventh, Tetreault took a 105.7 mph comebacker from Matt Vierling near his left ankle and went down in a heap. Martinez and head athletic trainer Paul Lessard raced out of the dugout to check on him, and presumably help him off the field, but Tetreault managed to stay in the game to a roar from the crowd of 32,261.
"We tried to lift him up to take him off the field, and he looked at me and said: 'I'm good. I can go,' " Martinez said. "OK. You want to throw one (warm-up pitch)? He threw one and said: 'I'm ready.' "
Tetreault then recorded three straight outs, the last of them on a tough roller to the left side he had to field himself, to complete a 91-pitch outing that turned out far better than his previous one.
"It was hurting a little bit, but I wanted to stay out there and keep going," he said. "I was feeling great. The way my socks were, I had them pulled over, so they were kind of double-layered. That might've helped out a little bit cushioning it. But it's all good. I'm happy I was able to finish the inning."
And, for a change, the Nationals supplied their starter with some real run support. Having struggled most of the week to score runs in bunches, they finally delivered today with a four-spot in the second, and back-to-back two-spots in the fourth and fifth.
They did so with the longball, including one really longball from their struggling star slugger. Soto stepped to the plate in the bottom of the second with two on and two out, having gone a measly 6-for-48 with runners in scoring position so far this season. But when he clobbered Zach Eflin’s first pitch 420 feet into the second deck in right field, he flung his bat away and defiantly trotted around the bases having just given his team a 4-0 lead.
"It's like a flush," Soto said. "It's like you flush your mind, your body, everything. You just feel amazing. Your work is coming through, and you just feel amazing when you see the ball flying like that."
The Nationals would add two more runs in the fourth via César Hernández’s RBI double and then (moments after Josh Bell was intentionally walked to load the bases) Nelson Cruz drew an unintentional walk to force in another run.
And when Franco blasted a two-run homer through the wind to extend the Nats’ lead in the fifth, a long-awaited offensive explosion was finally reality for a lineup that sure could’ve used more of that during this finally concluded homestand.
"Sometimes it's hard, but we have to just forget about it, because you can't control what's going to happen," Franco said of the eight-game losing streak his team carried into today's game. "Think about day to day, pitch to pitch, game to game. We had to try to stay locked in, stay positive, all the way down. And good results are going to happen."
* Following the game, the Nationals optioned Cory Abbott to Triple-A. The right-hander, who was called up before Saturday's doubleheader to provide another fresh arm for a staff that needed one, pitched a scoreless ninth today to close out the win.
With all major league clubs required to reduce their pitching staffs to 13 by Monday, someone had to be removed from the current roster. The Nats may use the additional bench spot they now have on Alcides Escobar, who has been on a rehab assignment with Rochester and appears close to returning from a hamstring strain suffered three weeks ago in New York.