The Nationals bullpen walked the tightrope all night long as it attempted to hold the lead and managed to find a way to get within one out of pulling it off.
Until all that walking on a tightrope turned into a walk-off.
Dansby Swanson delivered a dramatic two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth off Nats closer Daniel Hudson, part of a four-run Braves rally that resulted in a stunning 7-6 loss.
“They’re really tough, man,” Hudson said during a postgame Zoom video call. “They don’t hurt themselves too much. They don’t swing at a lot out of the zone.
“Obviously, Swanson there, I got two outs and I know who’s on deck. Freddie (Freeman) is on deck and I don’t want him coming to the plate with a guy in scoring position with a chance to tie. Dansby probably had that idea and pretty good when you have Freddie hitting behind you, so probably sees a lot of heaters. He jumped all over it and made me pay.”
Until that upsetting turnaround in the ninth, it looked like the Nats bullpen was going to be able to find a way to hold on to the first of three games between the teams.
Nats relievers were tasked with protecting a 5-3 advantage until the top of the ninth when Juan Soto made it 6-3 thanks to his seventh homer of the season. The Braves had left 13 men on base until the bottom of the ninth changed it all.
The bullpen’s night started in the sixth inning with Dakota Bacus getting the call and the Nats up 5-3. The right-hander allowed a two-out single to Swanson, but that was it, striking out one. The biggest at-bat was against Freeman. Bacus managed to induce Freeman to roll over to first base to get out of the inning.
In the seventh inning, Tanner Rainey came on earlier than usual and got himself into a major jam. After walking Travis d’Arnaud to begin the frame, Rainey struck out Marcell Ozuna. But then Nick Markakis doubled to put the tying run at second base. Adam Duvall then drew a walk to load the bases.
With one out and leading 5-3, Rainey had to find a way. Pitching coach Paul Menhart came to the mound to talk to Rainey. The right-hander was not setting up the at-bats as well with his fastball and his slider was not getting enough of the bottom of the plate.
After the chat, Rainey went after the next two batters with his fastball first, then his slider. It worked. Johan Camargo and pinch-hitter Matt Adams both struck out swinging to end the threat.
Manager Davey Martinez was impressed with Rainey’s Houdini act of wiggling out of a bases-loaded jam.
“That was big,” Martinez said during the postgame Zoom video call. “He’s been throwing the ball well. He fell into some trouble today. I thought he was a little quick today, a little quicker than normal. I talked to him and he actually said he felt the same way. We’ll correct it and see how he feels tomorrow. And he’ll be back out there if we have the lead.”
But then in the ninth, with his team leading 6-3, Hudson hit Nick Markakis with a pitch. That was the opening the Braves were looking for.
Adam Duvall, who was 1-for-9 lifetime versus Hudson coming into the game, hit a line drive over the short wall in left field for a two-run homer to cut the lead down to 6-5.
Atlanta was not done. Camargo singled, but Hudson battled back to record two outs.
Then, Swanson won it with the walk-off over the right-center field wall. The Braves scored four runs in the ninth to win it.
Up 1-0 in the at-bat, Swanson connected on Hudson’s 96 mph fastball and drove it out of the park.
“It started with the tried-to-do-too-much slider to (Nick) Markakis with two strikes and just yank it, hit him and put him on,” Hudson said. “And then obviously, I haven’t even looked at the pitch yet, but it wasn’t a very sharp slider to Duvall. It might have been in a decent spot, but it just kind of hung there. I didn’t see the velo on it but it probably wasn’t as hard as I wanted it to and just didn’t get it out of the strike zone.”
“My fastball generally plays up better than it does down and I just had a difficult time getting it up tonight where I get some weak contact or a swing and a miss. Obviously, you got a guy on first base and I’m not the fastest guy to the plate when I use my full leg kick, so I don’t know maybe my slide step kind of threw me off a little bit tonight. I couldn’t stop the bleeding or the snowball from going downhill. Just an off night.”
So, would Hudson consider working on the slide step more with men on to refine it, or speed up his full leg kick for more power?
“It’s a fine line,” Hudson said. “I generally don’t lose too much stuff when I slide step. Sometimes it actually kind of locks me in a little bit, gets my arm going a little bit quicker. Sometimes it can be a little bit too slow to the plate when I use my leg kick. But I don’t want to let the tying run get into scoring position where a blooper or something like that can tie the ball game up. Those are the situations where there is no gray area for a closer. Nothing you can do about it now, and try to go get them tomorrow.”
Hudson had not given up two homers in a regular season game since June 2012 while with the Diamondbacks, before Duvall and Swanson connected in Monday’s rally.
“Duvall hit a pretty good pitch out,” Martinez said. “The fastball, he just didn’t get it up enough to Swanson. For me, the big one is you’ve got Markakis two strikes and he hit him. ... That was uncharacteristic of him.”
It was Hudson’s second blown save of the season and dropped his record to 1-2. But as veteran and as a closer, he knows days like this can happen. It’s inevitable. And if you are going to be a quality closer, you have to have a short memory: Learn from it and move on.
“It stinks,” Hudson said. “A three-run lead in the ninth inning, it should be game over. That’s not always the case in baseball. But it’s going to sting, probably the rest of the night. But life of a reliever you can’t really let it bug you too long. It’s just one of those things where you wake up tomorrow and try to clear it and come to the ballpark tomorrow and if they call your name again try to be ready to go.”