Yes, they already played 19 games over the last 3 1/2 weeks, an erratic stretch of games their manager referred to as “seesaw baseball.” In practical terms, 2020 really began for the Nationals tonight in Atlanta with their first game against their top division rival in a season that will be defined by intradivisional play.
The first of 10 games between the Nats and Braves was exactly what you’d expect it to be: a tense, tight, perhaps contentious battle between a couple of heavyweights that came down to some critical head-to-head late matchups.
And the Braves won the most critical matchups against Daniel Hudson in the bottom of the ninth, dealing the Nationals their toughest loss of the season.
Handed a three-run lead with three outs to play, Hudson gave up four runs while only recording two outs. Adam Duvall delivered a two-run homer to left to get the rally started. Four batters later, Dansby Swanson took the closer deep to center for a two-run, two-out, walk-off homer to lift the Braves to a 7-6 victory.
“It stinks,” Hudson, charged with his second blown save in six attempts, said during his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “A three-run lead in the ninth inning, it should be game over. That’s not always the case in baseball. But it’s going to sting, probably the rest of the night.”
It was a gut punch at the end of what looked like an uplifting night for the Nationals. They got homers from Luis García, Eric Thames, Asdrúbal Cabrera and Juan Soto and impressive work from relievers Dakota Bacus, Tanner Rainey and Will Harris. But they couldn’t get the final piece of work they needed from the last man called out of their bullpen, and now they have to stew on this one for 24 hours before returning to work.
There’s still a long way to go, but at 8-12, the Nationals are straggling behind the pack in the National League East. A win tonight would’ve gone a long way toward moving them in the right direction.
“We’ve just got to keep battling,” manager Davey Martinez said in his postgame Zoom call. “I don’t want our guys to get down. It’s a tough loss, but we’ve got to put this one behind us and come back tomorrow and do it again.”
After Aníbal Sánchez gutted his way through five innings of three-run ball, the Nationals entrusted the rest of the evening to their bullpen.
Bacus continued his impressive first week in the majors with a scoreless sixth, his fourth scoreless inning since he debuted. Rainey then got into his first jam of the season, loading the bases with one out in the seventh, but responded by striking out both Johan Camargo and former teammate Matt Adams to post a huge zero on the scoreboard.
Harris, handed the eighth, got himself into a two-out jam of his own and then fell behind Marcell Ozuna 3-0 to create a most precarious situation. But he bounced back to get the Braves cleanup man to ground to short and wriggle his way out of that inning with a 5-3 lead intact.
Soto gave his closer some extra cushion with a 445-foot leadoff blast - his seventh homer in 12 games - to open the top of the ninth and extend the lead to three runs. Atlanta reliever Will Smith didn’t seem to appreciate the 21-year-old admiring his shot, and Martinez let Smith know he didn’t appreciate the response to his young slugger.
“Hey, it wasn’t Juan that threw the ball,” the Nats manager said he told the Braves lefty. “His job is to hit it. Just be quiet and get on the mound. You threw the pitch. Make a better pitch.”
Turns out Hudson needed more than a three-run cushion. He immediately got into trouble when his 1-2 slider came too far inside and hit Nick Markakis to put the leadoff man on first. Moments later, Duvall sent another 1-2 slider over the left field fence for the two-run homer that cut the lead to 6-5.
“It wasn’t a very sharp slider to Duvall,” Hudson said. “It might have been in a decent spot, but it just kind of hung there.”
Even so, Hudson was on the verge of closing out a win. Despite giving up a single to Camargo, he struck out Adeiny Hechavarria and got Ender Inciarte to fly out, bringing Swanson to the plate with two out and one on. As Freddie Freeman loomed on deck, Hudson tried to end the game right there. Freeman never did come up to bat, but only because Swanson lofted a 1-0 fastball over the plate deep to center to set off a wild celebration at the plate.
“I know who’s on deck,” Hudson said. “Freddie is on deck, and I don’t want him coming to the plate with a guy in scoring position with a chance to tie. Dansby probably had that idea, and pretty good when you have Freddie hitting behind you, so he probably sees a lot of heaters. He jumped all over it and made me pay.”
Just as they did last week in New York, the Nationals gave Sánchez a quick 3-0 lead. And just as he did against the Mets, Sánchez immediately gave runs back.
The lead was achieved thanks to a pair of second-inning home runs, one from a 20-year-old in his first week in the big leagues, the other from a veteran slugger who desperately needed his first blast of the season. Both came on first-pitch fastballs from erratic Braves right-hander Touki Toussaint.
García’s two-run shot got things started and was the latest milestone moment in the rookie infielder’s burgeoning career. He notched his first career hit in his first career game Friday night in Baltimore. Tonight he notched his first career homer, a 410-foot drive to right-center.
“I’m so happy to be here,” he said during a postgame Zoom call, showing off his improved English. “I tried to help the team when I can, win a lot of games and win another championship. I’m so excited.”
Two batters later, Thames also pounced on a first-pitch fastball and sent it soaring 429 feet to deep right-center, a welcome development for the struggling slugger.
Speaking of welcome developments, Sánchez’s eight-pitch bottom of the first was exactly what the veteran right-hander needed. Alas, it didn’t carry over into the bottom of the second, an inning that bore much more resemblance to his previous three starts. A leadoff walk, an RBI double and a two-out RBI single turned the Nationals’ 3-0 lead into a 3-2 lead and again raised doubts about Sánchez’s ability to right his wayward ship.
His struggles continued in the third, a 36-pitch slog of an inning that began with back-to-back-to-back singles but somehow ended with only one run crossing the plate.
He never completely found his groove, but Sánchez did manage to get through the fourth and fifth without suffering any more damage. And though few would gloat about a five-inning, three-run, 99-pitch start, in this case, it represented a positive development.
“I felt really strong at the end of the game,” he said. “I think I found a little bit of myself at the end of the game than earlier in the game. I think that outing was the best one so far for me.”
Sánchez’s teammates helped out by adding a couple more runs while he was still in the game. They took advantage of Toussaint’s third-inning wild streak - three walks and a hit batter - to score their fourth run of the night, and they could’ve scored more if García’s scorched liner to third wasn’t hit right at a diving Austin Riley, who stuck his glove on the bag to complete the inning-ending double play.
Left-hander Grant Dayton replaced Toussaint, and you could almost see Cabrera’s eyes light up at the prospect of batting right-handed for the first time tonight. Sure enough, Cabrera led off the fifth with a blast to left, remarkably his 11th hit in 21 at-bats versus lefties this season, three of them doubles, four of them homers.
That extended the Nationals’ lead to 5-3, but it still left their bullpen needing to record 12 outs to pull out an increasingly important win over a division rival. Alas, after three pitchers recorded the first nine outs, the fourth - and most important - member of the group couldn’t finish the job
“We had the perfect guy out there in the ninth inning,” Martinez said. “We just couldn’t get it done tonight. He’ll be back out there tomorrow.”