With seven-run splurge, Nats win another series over Braves (updated)

To swing or not to swing at the first pitch? That is the question the Nationals have confronted too regularly this season with a lineup that preaches an aggressive approach but often takes things too far and makes way too many quick outs that make life way too easy on opposing starters.

And for three innings today, it looked like that approach was once again going to be their undoing, with a rapid flurry of outs made against a rookie in his major league debut.

Here’s the thing, though: Across the sport, hitters have better numbers on the first pitch than almost any potential count. And as much as it feels like they struggle in this department, the Nats actually hit .332 on the first pitch, slightly better than the leaguewide average of .330.

So by sticking to the aggressive approach, and most importantly actually making hard contact, the second time around, the Nationals exploded for their biggest offensive inning of the year and went on to beat the Braves 8-5 to complete another series win over their division rivals, this one before an appreciative crowd of 34,282.

"Look, I don't mind being aggressive. We talk about it all the time," manager Davey Martinez said. "But you've got to get the ball in the zone. We can't just swing at everything. It's talked a lot in the dugout about it. And then when they finally do it, the results are a lot better."

With a seven-run splurge in the bottom of the fourth, the Nats took a comfortable lead and held onto it the rest of the way, though Jordan Weems made it more interesting in the ninth than it needed to be. In the process, they took three of four from Atlanta for the second time in two weeks and closed out what felt like a brutal portion of their schedule in encouraging fashion.

During a stretch of 17 consecutive games without a day off, all but three of those games coming against teams currently in either first or second place in their respective divisions, the Nationals went 9-8.

"I've said this since spring training: This group is fun," Martinez said. "They play with a lot of energy. And it showed this last series. Seventeen games in a row without a day off, and they're going out battling and grinding. These last few games were amazing, and I'm proud of them, because they just keep going. They don't quit."

Included in this stretch were eight games against the Braves, NL East champions in each of the last six seasons. The Nats went 6-2 against them, with four of the wins coming by at least three runs.

"It shows that we can compete with anybody," shortstop CJ Abrams said. "Anybody in our way is just another opponent."

This afternoon began in inauspicious fashion, and not merely because of the 35-minute rain delay that didn’t include much – if any – rain. DJ Herz, making his second career start, labored through a second inning that required 33 pitches and featured two hits, two walks, two wild pitches and a tense moment in which it looked like Jarred Kelenic was thinking about charging the mound.

Herz, though, got through the inning with just the two runs allowed. And he settled down after that, retiring eight of nine batters faced through the fourth. Given the chance to begin the fifth, the left-hander got one out but was pulled with two runners on base and his pitch count up to 87, with Jacob Barnes coming out of the bullpen to pitch out of the jam and ensure Herz wouldn’t be charged with any more runs.

"I just needed a reset," the rookie said. "Talking with (pitching strategist Sean) Doolittle, it was like: It happened. Let it go. Move on to the next. Go back out there. These guys are going to put runs up, and sure enough it happened."

Early on, the Nationals looked helpless at the plate against Hurston Waldrep, the only player on the field with even less big league experience than Herz. The Braves’ first round pick last summer, Waldrep was promoted after one start at Triple-A Gwinnett to give others in the rotation some extra rest.

The book on the former University of Florida right-hander: He’s got a devastating splitter. So the Nats’ apparent plan to combat that: Try to get to him early in the count before he could break out that put-away pitch. And then Waldrep proceeded to face the minimum nine batters through three innings, throwing a grand total of 28 pitches and recording four outs on the first pitch of an at-bat.

"At first, I was like: 'Holy mackerel, we're just going to go up there and swing,'" Martinez. "Then we started taking our walks, and good things started to happen."

"Just seeing what he had," Abrams said of the first trip through the lineup. "He had a good splitter. We learned it. Wanted to see more pitches, and it showed. We did a good job getting on base, getting to the next guy and got him out of there."

Did they ever. The Nationals started to work the count a bit in the bottom of the fourth, putting two on with two out and then getting an RBI single from Luis Garcia Jr. on a 2-0 pitch. Then Keibert Ruiz stepped up, took a mighty whack at the first pitch he saw and changed the entire narrative of the game. With a no-doubt, three-run homer to the back of the right field bullpen – Barnes made the catch on the fly between warmup tosses – Ruiz gave the Nats a 4-2 lead and proved it is actually possible to do damage on the first pitch.

"The difference is the pitch," he said. "You can swing at the first pitch, but if it's a ball, I'm not going to get a good hit. I've just got to swing at strikes."

And they weren’t done. The Nationals loaded the bases after the homer, knocking Waldrep from the game, and Abrams followed with his own ambush of reliever Aaron Bummer’s first pitch, this one resulting in a three-run double into the right field corner. That made six straight batters reaching with two outs, seven runs crossing the plate along the way to represent the team’s largest single-inning scoring output in more than a calendar year.

"It was hype. I was going crazy," Herz said. "I was clapping my hands, screaming. I was like: 'Let's go do this!' ... The runs were awesome. You saw the stadium, it got crazy. It was a lot of fun to be a part of."

They scored only one more run and recorded only two more hits the rest of the way. Not that they needed more. After getting 3 2/3 scoreless innings from Barnes, Robert Garcia and Dylan Floro, things got scary in the ninth when Weems failed to retire any of four batters faced, giving up a three-run homer to Kelenic and forcing Kyle Finnegan to enter for an unexpected save opportunity.

Finnegan calmly took care of business, and the Nationals still walked away with another impressive series win over a notable opponent. Thus did they conclude this 17-game stretch, one that saw them go 9-5 against the contending Braves, Mariners and Guardians while also getting swept by the struggling Mets.

"We've been playing good this year," Ruiz said. "We've just got to keep the good vibes here in the clubhouse. And do it against the Mets."

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