The Nationals could not hold a lead against the first-place Atlanta Braves on Saturday in an all-too-familiar scene reminiscent of April or early May, falling 13-9 in shocking fashion.
The Nats allowed 5-1, 8-4 and 9-8 leads evaporate, mostly thanks to their bullpen, which had seemed to regain its footing in June. But the ‘pen suddenly retreated to its previous beleaguered state with a disastrous seventh and eighth inning.
The Braves scored nine runs in the final three frames to prevent the Nationals from winning their sixth straight game and getting back to .500 mark for the first time in nearly two months.
The game-changing moment arrived in the seventh inning with the Nats up 8-4. Manager Davey Martinez decided to hand the ball to reliever Trevor Rosenthal, who recorded an important out Friday night, but had struggled for most of the season with his consistency.
Rosenthal’s early season inability to command the strike zone quickly returned at the most inopportune moment. He walked three batters in a row to begin the seventh. His final pitch almost hit Ronald Acuña Jr. in the head.
After the game while reviewing his outing, Rosenthal believed he had found what what going wrong with his delivery that was preventing him from finding the plate.
“Looking back at it, after I came out of the inning it was really a small mechanical tweak that I think will be an easy fix,” Rosenthal said. “It’s just a matter of timing and it just seemed like I was a little bit early on my timing and trying to make an adjustment and get everything to sync up. Just wasn’t able to get it there quite quick enough, but I think it’ll be something come back tomorrow and I’ll be able to figure it out fairly easily.
Martinez then lifted Rosenthal. Tanner Rainey walked Dansby Swanson to make it 8-5. With the bases loaded, slugger Freddie Freeman went after Rainey’s first pitch and lined a three-run double to deep left-center field to tie the game 8-8.
The damage was done and Martinez was left to try to understand where he stands now with Rosenthal. He said he will sit down again and look to piece together Rosenthal’s last two appearances: one good and one not so good.
“I’ll have to figure it out tonight and see,” Martinez said. “Yesterday, he seemed a little bit poised but today he seemed antsy out there. Some of those pitches were close, I didn’t see ‘em yet, but I’ll have to look and see where we’re at.”
The Nationals fought back in the bottom of the seventh, scoring a run off of A.J. Minter thanks to a wild pitch that scored Anthony Rendon. The Nats led 9-8 after seven.
But the bullpen again could not hold the lead, faltering again in the eighth inning.
Joe Ross, who just arrived Friday and was presumably set to be Sunday’s starter, was pressed into action as a reliever. The Braves jumped on him for five hits including a backbreaking three-run homer by Swanson. The blast over the left-center field wall was his 14th of the season, and Atlanta took the lead 12-9.
“I felt good,” Ross said. “Obviously two tough hits to start the inning. Just try to work out of trouble from there. And just got hurt on a breaking ball that didn’t get out of the zone with two strikes. You’d like to execute below the zone obviously and he kind of made me pay for it.”
Aníbal Sánchez allowed four runs over six innings on six hits with one walk and six strikeouts. He allowed a two-run single to Freeman in the fifth that cut the Nationals’ advantage to 5-4.
“All I know is how good they are,” Sánchez said of the Braves lineup. “You have to be smart in every pitch, every sequence that you put on those guys basically because you’re going to face (them) two, three times, probably four times in one game.”
They still had a chance to win it and led 8-4, but the bullpen was a mess, allowing a combined nine runs on eight hits with five walks over three innings.
The Nats had a scare early in the game when center fielder Victor Robles went down to one knee in the top of the second inning during Nick Markakis’ at-bat. Manager Davey Martinez and director of athletic training Paul Lessard tended to Robles in center field.
“He got dehydrated, got real dizzy and you can’t mess with those things like that,” Martinez said. “We’ll see how he feels tomorrow. He was very lightheaded, said his one eye, he lost focus. We got worried a little bit.”
Robles was removed from the game, walking under his own power, and was replaced by Michael A. Taylor. The 22-year-old was diagnosed with symptoms of dehydration. He received intravenous fluids as the game continued. Martinez said he noticed that Robles was in trouble and that is when he called to stop the game.
“When he went back down, I screamed it out, ‘Hold up,’ and he stayed down, that’s when Paul and I ran out,” Martinez said. “He just said he was dizzy. We tried to get him to look up and he said he was real dizzy. When you get to that point, where you’re that dehydrated, it’s scary.”
Martinez did not have more news on Robles after the game, but said he would check in with him to see how the center fielder was progressing.
The last time the Nationals were at the .500 mark was April 23 at Colorado (11-11). The Nats recent 18-7 run got them back in the race, but Saturday night had to feel like a golden opportunity wasted by the return of an early season deficiency.
With Ross used Saturday night out of the bullpen, Martinez announced that right-hander Austin Voth will get the ball for Sunday’s series finale.