Meltdown vs. Braves shrinks Nats’ wild card lead (updated)

Forget about a division title. That’s been out of reach for more than a week now. Forget even for a moment about home field advantage in the wild card game, which is still in their possession but feels less important right now than the Nationals’ first and foremost goal over the regular season’s final two weeks.

No, at this point in time the Nationals need to be worried most about reaching the wild card game at all, because while they remain in an advantageous position to achieve that objective, they still have plenty of work to do to actually ensure it.

And the pace they’re currently losing games - seven of their last 10 - coupled with the daunting schedule that still awaits suggests the Nats are by no means assured of playing baseball in October.

The evidence mounted today during a 10-1 loss to the Braves that qualified as one of the Nationals’ worst late-game implosions of a season that has already included more than they care to remember. A game they led 1-0 in the sixth behind another surprisingly dominant performance by rookie Austin Voth completely came undone by the bullpen, a lifeless offense and a manager whose critical decisions when the game was still on the line all backfired.

Unable to mount any kind of sustained offensive attack for the third time in their last five games (all losses) Davey Martinez was left to try to win a close, low-scoring game via reliever-batter matchups. The horses Martinez went with didn’t come close to getting the job done.

“We only scored one run,” the manager said. “We scored one run in two games. We’ve got to start hitting. We’ve got to hit again. We’re swinging the bats, just not getting any hits, not creating anything offensively right now. We’ve just got to regroup, come back tomorrow and do it again. Let’s try to go 1-0 tomorrow, and let’s pick it up and we’ll go from there.”

Before they pick things up Sunday and try to avoid a weekend sweep, a rehashing of the critical moments of today’s loss is mandatory.

Wander Suero, selected to replace Voth with two out and one on in the sixth inning, immediately gave up back-to-back singles to leave the game tied. The erratic righty then returned to open the seventh inning, only to issue back-to-back walks and get pulled in favor of Fernando Rodney.

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“You’ve got to keep your head up,” Suero said via interpreter Octavio Martinez, echoing a message he received from his manager during a postgame meeting. “Sometimes there’s things during the game, like any other game, where you just can’t control. That’s just baseball. Have a bad day, and you’ve just got to look forward to the next one.”

The game was still tied when Rodney entered. The 42-year-old has danced plenty of tightropes of late and somehow managed to survive, but he plummeted back to earth this time with a sequence that began with one of the scariest moments any ballplayer will ever experience in competition.

Pinch-hitter Charlie Culberson stepped up to face Rodney, his job to get a bunt down and move the go-ahead runner to third. But Rodney’s first pitch fastball, which registered 91 mph, came in high and tight. Culberson, either believing he could still get the bunt down or not quick enough to respond, never moved. The ball whizzed just above his bat and caught him square on the right side of his face, sending the Braves utilityman to the ground in a heap and trainers rushing to check on him.

“I feel really bad, because I’ve had that feeling: Three times I got hit before in the face,” catcher Raudy Read said. “I know how bad it was.”

Culberson eventually would get up under his own power and walk to a waiting medical cart, his face covered in a towel, as the sellout crowd of 39,664 stood and applauded. Rodney, who watched much of the proceedings from about 30 feet away, looked shaken, but Culberson gave him a thumbs-up sign as he rode off.

Then, emotions flared. The umpiring crew ruled that even in getting struck by the pitch in the face Culberson had offered at the pitch, making it a strike instead of a hit-by-pitch. Plate umpire Tim Timmons, speaking to a pool reporter, said Martinez had requested he check with first base umpire Bill Welke for that call. Welke informed his crewmate that Culberson had indeed offered at the pitch.

If technically the correct call, it certainly felt unnecessary under these particular circumstances, and it left Braves manager Brian Snitker irate and ultimately ejected from the game.

“We’re always sympathetic to a guy hit in the eye,” Timmons told the pool reporter. “But the rules are the rules. He had him offering at the pitch, and that’s what we had.”

Reporters weren’t aware that Martinez had requested the strike call until after his postgame news conference, so he was not asked about it. The Nationals manager said he planned to reach out to Snitker and the Braves to offer sympathy and check on Culberson’s condition.

“It was awful,” Martinez said. “You never wish that upon anybody. You don’t. I hope he’s alright, and my plan is to talk to Snit either tonight or tomorrow and make sure he’s alright. I know they get it. It stinks, but it’s part of it. I know Rodney feels awful. I just hope Culberson’s all right.”

Once the game resumed, with Adam Duvall taking over Culberson’s at-bat, Rodney imploded. He struck out Duvall but then gave up back-to-back doubles to Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies, three runs scoring in the process. Rodney would give up another run later in the inning, which he finished only after facing his eighth batter. Suero and Rodney collectively faced 13 batters in the fateful sixth and seventh innings, retiring only four of them.

“(Rodney) understands the game, and he struck out (Duvall) and he seemed like he was doing OK,” Martinez said when asked if he was concerned about the reliever’s state of mind after hitting Culberson. “We were watching him, and he just gave up a first pitch double to Acuña, and we can all agree he’s a pretty good hitter. But we need these guys in the stretch. They understand that.”

Rodney had already departed the clubhouse by the time reporters entered, which wasn’t until roughly 25 minutes after the game ended, later than usual.

The Braves turned this one into a complete rout with five tack-on runs off Erick Fedde in the eighth and ninth innings, the final insult to a miserable day at the park for the home team.

The Nationals, who two weeks ago were 7 games up in the race for a spot in the wild card game, have now seen that lead fall to 2 1/2 games after the Brewers beat the Cardinals tonight. Their lead over the Cubs for the right to host that winner-take-all contest is down to 1 1/2 games.

The afternoon began in oh-so-promising fashion, with the Nationals jumping out to a quick 1-0 lead and Voth turning in his latest (and best) surprisingly dominant performance against the Braves.

The rookie right-hander first put himself on everyone’s radar earlier this summer when he came up from Triple-A Fresno to face Atlanta and showed off much better stuff than the Nats saw from him during a brief 2018 call-up. He returned this month from biceps tendinitis and returned to the rotation when Joe Ross complained of forearm soreness and now has been effective twice against the same Braves lineup.

Though his fastball velocity averaged a modest 92.4 mph, Voth was able to blow it by hitters up in the zone, evidence of the pitch’s sneaky, late life and high spin rate. All in all, he induced 20 swings and misses on only 80 total pitches. That 25 percent swing-and-miss rate is the highest by any Nationals starter this season, besting Stephen Strasburg’s 24.3 percent rate from an Aug. 31 outing versus a far inferior Marlins lineup.

“Two different sides of the spectrum: He threw strikes,” Martinez said, comparing Voth to Suero and Rodney. “Got ahead of hitters and made his pitches. Simple. But he was really good, really effective. His ball had a little life.”

Effective as he was today, Voth did start showing signs of fatigue (or the Braves figuring him out) by the middle innings. He needed a double play off a line drive directly at Ryan Zimmerman to escape a fifth-inning jam with his shutout intact. Then he went to face Atlanta’s lineup for a third time to open the sixth and gave up a single, an out made possible only by Victor Robles’ leaping catch at the center field wall and another flyout to center.

With the tying run on base and two out in the sixth, Martinez walked to the mound and asked Voth how he felt.

“I was a little tired,” Voth said. “I got a cut on my finger that I was dealing with, and it started to bug me a little bit. I felt like I kind of lost my legs in the fifth and sixth, kind of using my arm rather than my legs a little bit more than I wanted to. Kind of tired me a little bit more than I should’ve been at that point. I definitely had to grind through those last two innings.”

Given that information, Martinez made the decision to remove his young starter in favor of Suero. It was the first of several decisions that backfired in this game.

“Suero’s come in in those moments before,” the manager said. “Had Donaldson up, and he just gave up a hit there and then but got an out. He’s got to go back out (for the following inning). Our bullpen right now is ... and he just couldn’t throw strikes. He couldn’t locate his cutter. The walks, as we all know, when you walk in this league, you’re going to pay the price. You don’t throw strikes and you don’t get ahead, you’re going to pay the price.”

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