Nats lose after wild, head-scratching ninth inning (updated)

ATLANTA - They had just watched Victor Robles provide the latest in a summer full of jaw-dropping, inspiring moments to bring the Nationals back from the dead. Down to their last out in what had been a sleepy night at SunTrust Park for 8 2/3 innings, the Nats had just tied the game on Robles’ monster home run off Braves closer Luke Jackson.

And then, chaos. And confusion. And a dispiriting, 4-3 loss to Atlanta that opened up manager Davey Martinez to all sorts of questions and criticism for his head-scratching pitching decisions in the decisive bottom of the ninth.

The game ended with:

* Fernando Rodney, 42, throwing 32 pitches in search of his first two-inning relief appearance in six years.

* Sean Doolittle and others in the bullpen panicking because they thought Martinez was summoning him into the game when in fact the manager was calling for left fielder Juan Soto to come in to play infield with the bases loaded and nobody out.

* Josh Donaldson ripping a drive to deep left-center, well beyond not only the drawn-in, five-man infield but the two-man outfield for the walk-off single.

And it ended with the Nationals wasting Robles’ top-of-the-ninth heroics and ultimately losing a game in the standings to the Braves, who now lead the National League East by 6 1/2 games with a pair of weekend matchups still awaiting over the next 48 hours.

“They’re a tough team,” starter Patrick Corbin said. “We’ll come back ready to go and try to win the series and get two more wins while we’re here.”

The Nationals could’ve clinched at least a series split had they finished off tonight’s game.

Things looked bleak when Robles stepped to the plate against Atlanta closer Luke Jackson with two outs and Ryan Zimmerman (who singled earlier) on base in the top of the ninth. But then the rookie destroyed a 98 mph fastball at the knees and sent it soaring 446 feet into the left field bleachers as the crowd of 39,344 sat stunned.

“I know it’s a situation where the team really needs me,” said Robles, who already three times this year has homered to tie a game or give the Nationals the lead, one of those also coming in the ninth inning. “So I try to stay patient up at the plate and just make any adjustments I have to.”

With Robles’ jaw-dropping blast, the Nationals somehow found a way to extend a pair of remarkable streaks to 26 games: They haven’t had a starter take a loss since June 15, and in that same stretch they have either been tied or ahead in the seventh inning or later in every game.

“That was an unbelievable home run, a great swing,” Martinez said. “These guys never give up. They fight. They keep fighting.”

Alas, the evening still ended in massive disappointment for the Nationals.

Rodney-Fires-at-MIA-Gray-Sidebar.jpgRodney, who pitched a scoreless bottom of the eighth on 17 pitches, was given a chance to return for the bottom of the ninth. The 42-year-old had to face the feared top of the Atlanta lineup, all while Doolittle (who was prepared to enter the game if the Nats had taken the lead) stayed in the bullpen.

Rodney had gone 1 1/3 innings, throwing 33 pitches, for Triple-A Fresno on June 10. And he recorded four outs once apiece for the Twins and Athletics last season. But he had not completed two full innings in a game since Sept. 20, 2013 for the Rays (a team for which Martinez served as bench coach).

“I don’t know the last time,” Rodney said. “But I feel good, and I think ... they need me for the ninth inning to keep going.”

“He’s done that,” Martinez said. “He went two innings down in Triple-A. He’s done it a couple times. I went out there, and he said he was good. After the game he told me: ‘Hey, I’m ready to pitch tomorrow.’ But he threw well. Walking Acuña was the big thing.”

A leadoff walk of Ronald Acuña Jr. certainly created a troublesome situation for Rodney, but the veteran reliever only compounded matters by then surrendering a single to Dansby Swanson.

That brought Freddie Freeman to the plate, and if ever a situation called for a left-handed closer to be brought into a tie game on the road, this seemingly was it. Martinez, though, had already told Doolittle he would only come in if the inning got to Nick Markakis two batters later.

“Rodney is the eighth-inning guy, and Doolittle is your closer,” the manager said. “And those guys have been really good. And (Rodney) was throwing 95-96 (mph).”

Rodney proceeded to walk Freeman on four pitches, and the bases were loaded for Donaldson. At which point chaos appeared to ensue.

Martinez emerged from the dugout and signaled toward left field with his left arm. In the bullpen, guys started telling Doolittle he was being called into the game. Doolittle, under the impression he only needed to be ready for the following batter, looked confused. So did bullpen coach Henry Blanco.

Turns out Martinez wasn’t signaling to the bullpen at all, but rather to Juan Soto, who was being asked to trot in from left field, swap out his glove for an infielder’s mitt and take a position roughly where a second baseman would normally play as part of an emergency five-man infield.

“I know Soto has taken ground balls at first base,” Martinez explained. “And he’s taken them all over there. It didn’t really bother me. It’s just like a left-handed first baseman.”

And so it was that Soto temporarily became a left-handed second baseman as part of a five-man infield, while Robles and Adam Eaton were left to serve as a two-man outfield.

Not that the funky defensive alignment made any difference. Donaldson crushed Rodney’s 2-0 offering - his 32nd pitch of the night - to deep left-center and fell harmlessly on the warning track for the game-winning single.

“I go in there to do my best with the game on the line,” Rodney said. “But sometimes that’s part of the game.”

Maybe so, but it’s going to take a while for the Nationals - and those who follow them closely - to fully accept what happened tonight.

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