This was supposed to be the weak link of the Nationals organization: pitching depth. And when Max Scherzer went back on the injured list three weeks ago, there was ample reason to fear the worst out of the two guys who had now been thrust into the back end of the rotation: Erick Fedde and Joe Ross.
Except those guys haven’t been the problem, not in the least. The two right-handers have now each turned in back-to-back quality performances, all of them resulting in victories.
Tonight it was Fedde’s turn to keep the trend going. Despite some early struggles, he churned out six innings of two-run ball, benefited from a pair of three-run rallies by his lineup and then watched as his bullpen hung on for a tense 7-6 win over the Reds.
Though they led nearly the entire way, the Nationals were never fully in control of this game. Up five runs in the eighth, Tanner Rainey served up a two-run homer to Reds rookie sensation Aristides Aquino. With Daniel Hudson, Hunter Strickland and Wander Suero all unavailable after pitching Sunday in New York, manager Davey Martinez was left with little choice but to summon Sean Doolittle to pitch the ninth in what was now a save situation.
“If Doo’s available,” Martinez said, “he’s our closer.”
Doolittle, fresh off a high-stress weekend at Citi Field himself, immediately got into trouble. Pinch-hitter Phillip Ervin crushed the closer’s first pitch into the left field bleachers. José Iglesias then singled, bringing the tying run to the plate with nobody out.
But Doolittle buckled down and finished it off. He recorded a pair of outs in the air, and though perennial All-Star Joey Votto won an eight-pitch battle with a double just past Gerardo Parra’s reach in deep left field, Doolittle got Josh VanMeter to pop up to strand the tying runner on second and wrap up his 27th save.
“They’re not all going to be pretty,” Doolittle said. “Part of pitching in this role is grinding them out and finding a way to bend but not break. And that’s what tonight was about.”
The escape act in the ninth made a winner out of Fedde, who has combined with Ross to go 4-0 with an 0.77 ERA in four starts this month.
“It’s been unbelievable,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “They give us a chance to win the game each and every time. That’s all you can ask for.”
The way this game started, it was reasonable to wonder if the assembled masses were about to witness a long, slow slugfest. Both teams scored in the first inning. The Reds scored in the second. The Nationals added three more in the fourth. But things did settle down, and Fedde was among the biggest reasons that came to be true.
Not that Fedde’s evening began in encouraging fashion. Reds leadoff man Jesse Winker pounced on his very first pitch of the game and sent it flying to left field for a 1-0 lead before the official scorer could even announce the gametime and temperature.
And when the Reds picked up another run in the top of the second on No. 8 hitter Iglesias’ RBI double, Fedde’s pitch count was already up to 44 and his start was teetering on the brink.
“Definitely sometimes I’ll sit down in the dugout and think: ‘Man, I need to get through five,’ ” Fedde said. “And I always try to tell myself: ‘Just worry about the next pitch. If I can execute that, then hopefully we’ll find our way into the sixth.’ “
That’s exactly what happened. Fedde, to his credit, found his groove after the first two harrowing frames. He faced the minimum over the next three innings, needing only 32 pitches to do it, and so he put himself in a position to return to the mound for the top of the sixth. And he rewarded his manager for the display of confidence by posting another zero, pitching his way out of a two-on, one-out jam by striking out the previously red-hot Aquino and getting Nick Senzel to ground out to short.
With that 102-pitch effort, Fedde completed six innings while allowing two or fewer runs for the third time in his last five starts. Yes, he still seeks consistency, but he has shown the ability to be successful at this level.
“It’s even just a sense of confidence,” he said of his bounceback performance tonight. “I found a way to settle myself down and make an adjustment. That’s big, going on in my career.”
Fedde departed with a four-run lead thanks to a couple of three-run offensive explosions, one featuring several hits, one featuring one big blast.
The Nationals got a two-run homer from Matt Adams in the bottom of the first, then tacked on another run when Asdrúbal Cabrera doubled and Parra singled him home with his 10th hit in 17 at-bats with two outs and runners in scoring position since joining the team in May.
It required only one swing to produce the other three runs in the bottom of the fourth, though the rally was ignited by two-out singles from Victor Robles and (in a rare event) Fedde. That brought Turner to the plate with a chance to extend the lead. He fell behind in the count 0-2, battled back to a full count, fouled off Anthony DeSclafani’s first 3-2 offering and then lofted his next pitch (a slider) to left and just deep enough to clear the wall for a three-run homer.
“I thought I was out,” Turner said. “I was kind of mad and I wasn’t watching the ball. And then looked up and I noticed he was running toward the wall, and I was kind of confused. I guess the wind was blowing out or something. But I didn’t think it was a homer.”
It was a homer, though, one that gave the Nationals a 6-2 lead. And when Turner added an RBI single in the seventh to score Howie Kendrick (who doubled in his first at-bat off the injured list), they handed a five-run lead to their bullpen, hoping it would be enough to give their closer the night off.
Of course, it wasn’t enough. Doolittle did have to pitch. And though he ultimately closed out the game, he didn’t exactly do it in convincing fashion.
“These are the nights where you’ve got to dig deep and grind it out,” he said. “Thank goodness we had a three-run lead.”