Thomas homers and Gore fans 10, but Senzel injured in Nats' win (updated)

ATLANTA – Davey Martinez cautioned his team about the challenges facing a new pitcher ahead of tonight’s game against the Braves.

Right-hander Spencer Schwellenbach made his major league debut for the home team three years after being drafted, having Tommy John surgery and making only 24 minor league starts between last year and the start of this season, topping out at Double-A two weeks ago.

Was the plan to be more patient or aggressive against the rookie?

“You could look at it both ways,” Martinez said before the game. “Like I said, you want to get strikes. We got a young team that is very aggressive and they love to swing. But you gotta get him in the zone. … The key is to work some at-bats, see some pitches, see what he's got and then go from there.”

For the first half of the game, the Nats couldn’t decide if they wanted to be patient or aggressive against Schwellenbach. Some guys battled long at-bats, while others took hacks early. Either way, it led to poor results, going 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position and leaving four runners on base into the fifth inning.

But they finally got the big swing they were looking for in the form of Lane Thomas’ three-run home run and then some as they went on to beat the Braves 7-2 in front of 33,654 fans at Truist Park.

“We tried to get the guys to settle down a little bit and try to get a ball in the zone. We couldn't quite do that earlier," Martinez said after the game. "And then when Lane hit the home run, we kind of understood what we needed to do.”

Joey Gallo led off the fifth with a double, just his 11th extra-base hit of the year. Then Jacob Young squared up to bunt and took a 92 mph fastball off the face guard on his helmet. He went down in a hurry, and Martinez and a trainer immediately came out.

“Squaring to bunt. I saw the ball coming and then kind of just threw myself on the ground," Young said. "So thankfully, we wear that flap to protect us there. (Braves catcher Travis d'Arnaud) was great. Luckily having a guy behind home plate who was helping me out there. But it wasn't intentional. Just ran a fastball up and in and it caught me, but luckily it didn't catch me in the face.”

“That was a scary moment," Martinez said. "But apparently, it kind of grazed his little mask here. ... but when you get hit in the head like that, it's scary. I felt bad for him. I felt bad for the young kid pitching. We know that he didn't want to do that. But he came out OK.”

But the center fielder stayed in the game as the runner on first and said he felt fine after the game.

“I feel good," he said. "Ear's a little sore. Jaw's a little sore. But other than that, I feel good. Just kind of I think scared me more than anything. Kind of just was a moment of shock.”

Two batters later, Thomas hit a 96 mph fastball from Schwellenbach into the visiting bullpen in the right field corner to give the Nats a 3-1 lead.

“I thought he was going to trust his fastball in that situation because I'd kind of been late all night," Thomas said. "Fouled a few good ones off. It worked out.”

Thomas’ third homer of the season came 104.1 mph off the bat and traveled 385 feet.

“It was a big one for us," Martinez said. "But I kept saying, we keep getting traffic, somebody's about ready to drive in a run. ... But it was a big run for us. I think after we got the lead, it seemed like everybody just kind of opened up and we started having better at-bats.”

Young came back to the plate the next inning and drove in two big insurance runs to make it 5-1. A courageous at-bat after nearly getting hit in the head.

“You gotta put that last at-bat away, of course, first," he said. "We talk a lot about putting the ball in play with two strikes and that was one of the times where it worked out for the better."

"That's a big couple of runs right there," Martinez said of Young's RBIs. "Just shows you how tough that kid is.”

“He had really good stuff. No one had seen him before," Thomas said of Schwellenbach. "So after the first time going through, I think some guys made some good adjustments. … I think it just takes it an inning like that to get something going. And we got some big hits when we needed them.”

Keibert Ruiz then added a two-run single in the ninth for the final blow.

That was the kind of run support the offense couldn’t give Jake Irvin for his career-high 10-strikeout night on Tuesday. But it was enough tonight for MacKenzie Gore.

Gore came into his 11th start looking to continue a dominant trend by Nats starting pitchers. And he succeeded.

The left-hander became the second straight Nationals starting pitcher to strike out 10 batters, fanning them over 5 ⅓ innings and 97 pitches.

"MacKenzie was the guy," Martinez said. "He kept us in the game the whole night and pitched really well. To have two young guys like that strike out 10 each game against a team that can hit, that's pretty impressive.”

Gore used his full arsenal effectively, getting 13 whiffs and 11 called strikes while surrendering only six hits, two runs (one earned) and no walks. He struck out three consecutive batters on two separate occasions. And he lowered his ERA to 2.91, getting it back below 3.00 for the first time since April 13, when he also struck out double-digit batters.

“I thought we went at guys," Gore said. "I felt off-speed was good. So I thought we just had a good game plan and executed it well enough and got some strikeouts.”

He has now stuck out 10 or more batters twice this season and six times in his career. This was also his first 10-strikeout, no-walk game of his career, joining a list of Nationals pitchers who have completed that feat that includes Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, John Patterson, Jordan Zimmermann, Joe Ross, John Lannan, Gio González, Tanner Roark, Patrick Corbin and Josiah Gray.

“It's always good to strike a lot of guys out and, obviously, not walking anybody," Gore said. "Ten Ks is always great.”

Gore and Irvin became the first Nationals duo to strike out 10 hitters in consecutive games since Corbin and Scherzer on Sept. 17-18, 2019.

However, tonight wasn’t all good news. The Nats played most of this game without Nick Senzel, who departed in the second inning with an apparent knee injury. During his first plate appearance, the third baseman fouled a pitch off his right knee. Though stayed in the batter’s box to eventually draw a walk, first base coach Gerardo Parra called for Martinez and head athletic trainer Paul Lessard to come out during the next at-bat.

After a quick conversation, while he was mostly bent over addressing his knee, Senzel departed the game with Ildemaro Vargas coming in to pinch-run and take over third base for him. But all tests came back negative.

“He says he feels a lot better," Martinez said of Senzel. "He got a little scared. He went to go plant when he was at first base. He buckled up a little bit. So I wanted to get him out and get him checked out. Everything came back negative. Hopefully he's good to go tomorrow.”

It was another unfortunate event for Senzel, who missed the first 15 games of the season when he fractured his right thumb during batting practice on Opening Day in Cincinnati and missed another two games one week after returning while battling a stomach illness.

It also wasn’t the only scary moment for the Nationals tonight. Ruiz took a foul ball off a Gore pitch in a sensitive area in the fourth inning. The backstop needed a couple of moments before getting back behind the plate.

Then Young was hit in the helmet in the fifth and it felt like it was going to be an unlucky night for the Nats. Fortunately, they escaped the rest of the game without any further incidents and the victory.

“We didn't score early, but the guys were competing," Gore said. "We were putting ourselves in situations and we finally broke through. So yeah, the Lane homer was huge, and then we just kept adding on towards the end of the game.”

"When we score and we get the pitching we're getting," Martinez said, "we'll win some games.”

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