The outcome today - a 4-3, 10-inning loss - may not have been what they wanted, certainly not on the heels of Saturday night’s bullpen meltdown. But in the larger picture, the Nationals can’t be too down about what just took place on South Capitol Street.
In their most important week of the season, the Nats went 4-2 against the two teams they’re chasing in the National League East. They still have significant ground to make up, but they’ve got ample opportunity to do it, and they made enough of a statement to suggest they intend to make this a three-team race.
“You see the game: Every game we play, don’t matter if we win or lose, we play hard,” left fielder Juan Soto said. “We’re fighting, and that’s how you see a team that’s trying to come back. Right now, we’re feeling good. We lost, but we lost fighting.”
Today’s loss, which saw overworked reliever Tanner Rainey serve up a two-run homer to pinch-hitter Johan Camargo in the top of the 10th, was aggravating because it was an eminently winnable game. The Nationals scored a pair of runs in the seventh to tie it up, then had an opportunity to take the lead in the eighth and opportunities to win it in the ninth and 10th.
They could not push across the last run they needed, though. Adam Eaton bunted into an out and Anthony Rendon grounded into a double play to quash the eighth-inning rally. Gerardo Parra stranded the winning run on second in the ninth to send it into extra innings.
That’s when Rainey, who was part of Saturday night’s late implosion, gave it up. The hard-throwing right-hander issued a one-out walk to Ozzie Albies, then watched as Camargo turned on a 97 mph fastball down and in and drove it over the out-of-town scoreboard for the go-ahead homer.
“He just yanked the fastball to Camargo,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He just yanked really bad. It was supposed to be away, it came in.”
Even after that, the Nationals gave themselves another chance in the bottom of the 10th against Atlanta closer Luke Jackson, with a Yan Gomes leadoff walk and a subsequent Kurt Suzuki single setting the stage for something dramatic. Trea Turner got one run home with a grounder to short, and Eaton slapped a single to left to put the winning run on for Rendon. But the soon-to-be All-Star third baseman popped out and Soto grounded out to short to end the game.
“Tried to put the ball in the gap and (let) those guys score,” Soto said. “He got me a little jammed. But that was the pitch and I gotta hit it.”
It was a frustrating conclusion to the weekend, but it couldn’t completely wipe out four straight wins over Philadelphia and Atlanta to begin this week. Nor could it erase the fact the Nationals and Braves still face each other 14 more times this season, many more opportunities to catch up to the division leaders.
“I think especially after today and yesterday, we know we’re capable of keeping up with any of these guys,” Gomes said. “We’ve said it since the beginning: Eighth inning, ninth inning comes around, we’re going to battle til the end. We gave ourselves a chance to win today, it just didn’t come our way. But no shame, no hanging our heads.”
Rendered helpless for six innings by a Braves pitching staff that had to turn to an emergency plan when starter Mike Soroka departed after getting hit by Austin Voth’s pitch on his right forearm in the third inning, the Nationals lineup finally broke through in the bottom of the seventh.
Soto got a first-pitch curveball from Grant Dayton over the heart of the plate and did something he had not yet done in the big leagues: hit a home run. Yes, it was officially Soto’s first major league homer off a curveball, according to FanGraphs.com and it got the Nats on the board at last.
“That’s how you (know) I’m seeing the ball really well,” said Soto, now batting .381 with six homers, 24 RBIs and an 1.103 OPS over his last 34 games.
They weren’t done. Three straight singles from Matt Adams, Howie Kendrick and Parra tied the game at 2-2 and put the Nationals in position to emerge victorious on a day when the matchup appeared to be significantly tilted against them.
Given his track record (6.57 ERA in four MLB appearances last season, 4.23 ERA in 76 career Triple-A outings) and the circumstances (a spot start against one of the National League’s deepest lineups), expectations for Voth today were exceptionally low. But then he struck out Ronald Acuña Jr. on three pitches to begin his afternoon, and then he struck out Dansby Swanson on a 95 mph fastball, and suddenly hopes were raised.
“If he can continue to do that,” Martinez said, “he’s going to pitch here for a while.”
Voth, who had been summoned from Fresno to serve as the 26th man for Wednesday’s doubleheader against the Phillies but didn’t pitch, noted then that he has seen an uptick in velocity after adding weight and working out at Cressey Sports Performance over the winter. And it showed today.
After averaging 91 mph with his fastball last season, Voth was regularly throwing 95-96 mph today. More importantly, he was all over the strike zone, throwing 57 of his 83 pitches for strikes.
“It’s a meaningful game,” he said. “These games are going to impact September games down the road. Definitely wanted to give the club some innings, but this game was huge. I definitely wanted to go out there and compete, and I think I did a good job keeping them off-balance and giving our club a chance to win.”
In the end, Voth made only two mistakes. The first, a 1-0 slider to Josh Donaldson in the fourth, wound up on the batter’s eye in center field. The second, a 2-1 fastball to Acuña in the sixth, wound up in the red seats in deep left-center.
Voth did misfire badly on one other pitch that was pertinent to the outcome of this game: He came up-and-in on Soroka in the top of the third and wound up drilling the Braves starter on his right forearm. Soroka, who slammed his bat to the ground after getting hit, stayed in the game to run the bases but did not retake the mound for the bottom of the inning.
“I know (Voth); I got to work out with him this offseason,” Soroka told reporters afterward. “Obviously, with a 1-1 fastball, they weren’t going up and in. It happens. It’s part of baseball.”
Still, instead of facing a National League Rookie of the Year contender, the Nationals now were going to face seven innings of Atlanta relievers, starting with long man Josh Tomlin. What should have been an advantageous scenario instead proved far more daunting, with Tomlin surrendering a leadoff single to Parra in the third but then retiring 12 in a row before he was pulled.
No problem, because the Nationals simply needed to face some other member of the Braves bullpen to finally get themselves on the board and turn this into a whole new ballgame.
A ballgame that didn’t produce the desired end result but didn’t completely wipe out the positive results that kicked off this critical week.
“Hey, we played two pretty good teams,” Martinez said. “With everything said and done, we came out (4-2). We got a day off tomorrow, which the boys need. We come back, we got Miami for three. So let’s have that day off, come back, and play Tuesday.”