Five runs in two innings against the opposing ace should be a pretty air-tight formula for success. For the Nationals, it somehow meant a frustrating loss in the opener of a 14-inning doubleheader.
Despite getting to Braves left-hander Max Fried early and often, the Nats watched helplessly as Erick Fedde gave it all back and then some during an eventual 7-6 loss at Nationals Park that took some of the luster out of Tuesday’s thrilling opening day win.
They nearly pulled off another last-second rally when Starlin Castro doubled home Juan Soto with one out in the bottom of the seventh and left himself as the tying run on second base. But Atlanta closer Will Smith, who took the loss Tuesday, wriggled his way out of the jam, getting Andrew Stevenson to ground into a game-ending double play.
The Nationals still have a chance to split the doubleheader and win the opening series with Stephen Strasburg on the mound for the nightcap, which will begin in 45 minutes. But for a brief while early this afternoon, they looked like they might be in prime position to go for a sweep.
The Nationals didn’t enter the day with super high hopes for Fedde, thrust into an emergency start after both Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester landed on the injured list for COVID-19 protocols. But they were counting on the right-hander to at least give them four decent innings and take some pressure off a bullpen that knew it was going to have to participate in two games.
So it was particularly discouraging when Fedde couldn’t even complete two innings. He escaped the top of the first with only one run across the plate, and that one scored on a passed ball by new catcher Jonathan Lucroy. But the wheels came off in the top of the second, right after the Nationals staked him to a 4-1 lead.
Fedde let the first four batters of the inning reach safely, including an infield RBI single by the pitcher. By the time Travis d’Arnaud blasted a two-run double to left-center to complete a four-run rally, Davey Martinez decided he had seen enough and turned to his bullpen.
“Honestly, my fastball was up a lot today,” Fedde said. “Pitching behind in counts makes everything a lot tougher. Those were probably the two big things. Yeah, that pretty much led to everything.”
The cobbled-together relief corps did its part to keep the deficit at 6-5 for most of the day. Kyle McGowin, Sam Clay, Kyle Finnegan and Luis Avilán combined for 4 1/3 scoreless innings, with Clay striking out both Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna in his major league debut and Finnegan striking out the side with fastballs that progressively increased in velocity from 96 to 98 mph.
“It’s pretty crazy: I grew up a Braves fan,” said Clay, a Georgia native. “I’ve seen all these guys play for quite a while. It was a little crazy just because you see these guys on TV, and then you’re standing up on the mound and you see them standing there and they just look like giants. But it was incredible to face the Braves in my debut.”
The Atlanta bullpen, though, equaled the feat after watching Fried get knocked out early. The Nationals took it to the left-hander in the bottom of the first, five straight batters reaching base against him to begin the afternoon. Trea Turner launched his second homer in as many days, Ryan Zimmerman doubled as part of his 4-for-6 start to the season and Castro singled home a run to sustain the rally and stake the Nats to a 4-1 lead.
Castro added another RBI single in the bottom of the second, and the Nationals had to feel good about their chances up four runs on a tough opponent. But it wasn’t nearly that simple, not on a day when their fill-in starter didn’t give them much chance.