Needing a good start from Stephen Strasburg to have a chance at winning their season-opening series against the Braves despite a roster missing nine key veterans, the Nationals got more than that. Strasburg was great, tossing six innings of one-hit ball this afternoon.
What they didn’t get, however, was a run of their own. Or scoreless work from their bullpen. And because of it, a three-game series that was right there for the taking slipped from their hands.
Pablo Sandoval’s two-run homer off Tanner Rainey with two outs in the top of the seventh proved the only big hit of the Braves’ 2-0, seven-inning victory in the nightcap of a doubleheader at Nationals Park. And it was a killer.
After watching both lineups fail to plate a run off the respective starters - Strasburg for the Nats, unheralded right-hander Huascar Ynoa for the Braves - someone finally delivered in the final inning. Rainey, tasked with keeping the game scoreless after Strasburg was pulled at 85 pitches, got two quick outs but then surrendered a single to Dansby Swanson to bring Sandoval to the plate.
The husky professional hitter, still remembered around these parts for his role in the 2014 National League Division Series while with the Giants, worked the count to 2-2 and then took a borderline pitch for ball three that didn’t sit well with the home dugout. Rainey then grooved a 96-mph fastball over the heart of the plate, and Sandoval drilled it over the center field wall for a back-breaking homer.
“For most of the at-bat, I was trying to elevate,” said Rainey, who only threw fastballs during the pivotal at-bat. “It ended in a 3-2 count, and I missed. He didn’t.”
After a stirring, come-from-behind win in Tuesday’s delayed season opener, the Nationals suffered a pair of disappointing losses during today’s doubleheader, blowing a 4-1 early lead in the first game en route to a 7-6 loss, then getting shut out in the nightcap before a paid crowd of 4,927.
Thus do the depleted Nats head west for a daunting road trip through Los Angeles and St. Louis with a 1-2 record, hoping to get at least a few of their ineligible players back before returning home next week.
“I’ll tell you right now: What these boys have been through, and what they did the last 25 hours - we had to play three games - I’m very proud and pleased with the way they went out and played,” manager Davey Martinez said during his postgame Zoom session. “They left it all out on the field. We had a bunch of guys that were cramping up at the end. We’re going to get that day off tomorrow, and then go get them on Friday.”
A game that featured precious few baserunners and even fewer scoring opportunities saw the Nationals finally threaten in the bottom of the sixth after Victor Robles drew his fourth walk of the young season, took second on a delayed steal and then took third on Trea Turner’s flyout to right. The Braves intentionally walked Juan Soto, putting the onus on Starlin Castro to deliver in the clutch. But the veteran infielder (who had three run-scoring hits in today’s first game) chopped one back to the mound, and that sent the game into the seventh and decisive frame.
If there was any question that Strasburg’s long layoff since last pitching in a big league game or his shorter layoff since last pitching in any game would have an adverse effect, he made it immediately clear there was no reason to worry.
The right-hander was in control from the get-go, pitching around a one-out single by Ozzie Albies and retiring the more imposing Ronald Acuña Jr., Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna to complete a scoreless top of the first.
He would walk both Acuña and Albies in the third, but those were the last baserunners he permitted. He retired the last 10 batters he faced, finishing with eight strikeouts and only the one early hit surrendered.
“You can see the results, and you can be happy about that,” Strasburg said. “But I think it’s really just focusing on the execution. I feel like my execution was not very good most of spring training, and really for whatever reason (they) didn’t get too many big hits off me. I thought my execution was a lot better today. It’s a step in the right direction.”
It was a vintage performance by Strasburg, and it came precisely when the Nationals needed it, after watching Erick Fedde get knocked out in the second inning in the opener a few hours earlier.
Trouble is, Ynoa was just as effective as his more experienced and more lauded opponent. The young righty, who has mostly pitched in relief in the past, tossed five scoreless innings today, the longest outing of his brief career.
The Nationals managed only two hits off Ynoa: Soto’s infield single in the first, and Strasburg’s double to the right-center gap in the third. The only time they seriously threatened to score came moments after the Strasburg double, when Robles drew a walk. But Turner grounded into a 4-6-3 double play, and that quashed that rally and left this game scoreless.
Which is where it remained for quite some time.
“The good thing that he did today is, he threw strikes,” Martinez said of Ynoa, who had 44 strikes among his 68 pitches. “He worked ahead, he threw strikes, he threw all his pitches for strikes. He kept our hitters off-balance. Typically, we’re going to be patient with him. But today, he pounded the strike zone.”
Note: Major League Baseball announced the rescheduled makeup games for last weekend’s postponed series against the Mets. The two clubs will now play a pair of split doubleheaders and play the other game on what originally was an off-day.
The April 1 opener will now be made up as part of a day-night doubleheader June 19 (1:05 p.m. and 6:05 p.m.), while the April 3 game will be made up June 28 at 7:05 p.m. The April 4 game will be made up as part of another day-night doubleheader Sept. 4 (1:05 p.m. and 6:05 p.m.).
Tickets for the April 1 and April 4 postponed games will be good for the 1:05 p.m. games of those respective doubleheaders.