ATLANTA - Davey Martinez wasn’t willing to use Sean Doolittle in the ninth inning Friday night. He was willing to use his closer in the eighth inning tonight.
And the Nationals manager was rewarded for his aggressive pitching maneuver with a nip-and-tuck victory that ensures his team will at worst split this weekend’s series against the division leaders.
Doolittle, making his first appearance in a week, recorded five outs to preserve the Nationals’ 5-3 win over the Braves, a tense affair befitting this compelling race for the top spot in the National League East.
“I am really proud of him,” Martinez said. “He got five outs. That was awesome.”
One night after leaving his closer in the bullpen in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth and watching Fernando Rodney throw 32 pitches in a walk-off loss, Martinez again sent his 42-year-old setup man to the mound in the eighth, this time with a one-run lead. Rodney surrendered a leadoff, seeing-eye single to Brian McCann but struck out Austin Riley with a 98 mph fastball.
That’s when Martinez emerged from the dugout and signaled for Doolittle as part of a double-switch, asking his well-rested closer to deliver five outs for him with zero margin for error, the Nats leading only 4-3 at that time.
“If (Rodney) gets one or two outs, I told (pitching coach Paul Menhart), we’ve got to get Doo in the game,” Martinez said. “We’ve got to get Doo in. And that’s what ended up happening.”
Doolittle made things tougher on himself when he had pinch-runner Ender Inciarte picked off but couldn’t get the ball to first baseman Howie Kendrick quick enough to retire Inciarte at second. No matter, because he proceeded to strike out Ronald Acuña Jr. with a high fastball and strand the tying run in scoring position.
“The last time I came in with Rodney’s runners on base, I let him score,” Doolittle said, referencing his July 7 blown save against the Royals. “I really wanted to keep him from scoring. For Fernando. For the team.”
The Nationals gave their closer a huge insurance run in the top of the ninth when Adam Eaton singled home Trea Turner to extend the lead to 5-3. They had a chance to add even more, with Doolittle forced to bat with one out and the bases loaded. The former University of Virginia slugger worked the count full against Wes Parsons but grounded into a double play to end the frame.
“It was cool that I put the ball in play, I guess,” he said. “But in hindsight, I should’ve just stood there and taken strike three and not killed the rally. I had to run all the way to first base. I’m walking back across the field, and I’m like: ‘Why did you do that? What’s going on?’”
No worries, because Doolittle re-took the mound for the bottom of the ninth and retired the side to complete a 26-pitch, five-out save.
With the narrow victory, the Nationals trimmed their deficit in the NL East to 5 1/2 games (four back in the loss column) with a chance to gain another game on Atlanta if they can win Sunday night’s series finale, though they’ll do so with a surprise starter. Joe Ross will be promoted from Triple-A Fresno, Martinez said after tonight’s game, to pitch in place of Austin Voth, who is dealing with a sore shoulder.
“Come tomorrow, play tomorrow,” the manager said. “Play hard and see what happens.”
Having been shut down by the usually hittable Julio Teheran on Friday night, the Nationals faced a tougher challenge tonight in Mike Soroka. But they slowly wore down the young Braves ace and strung together a bunch of quality at-bats against him to take a three-run lead.
Matt Adams got it started with an opposite-field, solo homer in the fourth. Aníbal Sánchez (career .074 hitter) then ignited a fifth-inning rally with an infield single, scoring moments later on Turner’s double to the gap. Three more singles in succession (by Eaton, Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto) would plate a couple more runs and give the Nationals a 4-1 lead.
They needed Sánchez to get through a couple more innings with that lead intact, though. And though the veteran starter technically did keep the lead intact, he did so only by the slimmest of margins. And he didn’t get through two more innings.
Sánchez escaped a bases-loaded jam in the fifth, with a huge assist to Turner, who made a leaping grab of Nick Markakis’ line drive to short and then threw to first to complete an inning-double play.
“Oh my god, I think that’s the play of the game,” Sanchez said.
“I’ve had quite a few tip off my glove this year,” Turner said. “So it was nice to catch one.”
Sánchez received no such help in the sixth: He issued a leadoff walk and then served up a two-run homer to McCann, ending his evening. The onus was now on the Nationals bullpen to churn out four innings and protect a one-run lead.
That’s no small task against this potent Atlanta lineup, but Wander Suero did his part. The oft-erratic reliever recorded six huge outs to get through the sixth and seventh innings and set the stage for the drama that would come after that.
“That’s what I want to do: Go out and do anything I can to help the team out,” Suero said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “And I feel like the same way with my teammates, and I support them. And hopefully they go out there and do the same, and do their job.”
On this night, they most certainly did. And because of that, the Nationals walked out of SunTrust Park with a gut-check win.