Baseball folks don’t like to talk about momentum, because they’ve been doing this long enough to understand that what happened in recent days doesn’t necessarily portend what will happen tonight. The Nationals had every reason to enter their series opener with the Braves feeling like they held the upper hand, based on their four-game winning streak, Atlanta’s four-game losing streak and everything that transpired to make both events possible.
Of course, it doesn’t actually work like that. The Braves aren’t as bad as they looked over the weekend, and the Nats probably aren’t as good as they looked, either. Only over the course of six months will we learn which of these rivals truly is the better club, perhaps even the division champ.
On this night, Atlanta looked far more like the National League East favorites than Washington, which suffered a 6-1 loss both because it couldn’t hit a young right-hander named Huascar Ynoa and because it couldn’t keep the aforementioned young right-hander from hitting.
Ynoa, who already had shut out the Nationals for five innings in an early April matchup on South Capitol Street, was even better this time around. He allowed one unearned run over seven standout innings, then helped his cause in the most productive possible way, blasting a sixth-inning grand slam off Tanner Rainey that sucked all the life out of a home dugout that hadn’t experienced a loss in a week.
“He’s throwing the ball 99-100 mph, and his slider and changeup have been really, really good,” manager Davey Martinez said of Ynoa during his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “He’s throwing strikes. He’s just a tough at-bat. We don’t see the ball very well off him.”
The day began in promising fashion, with the Nats activating Juan Soto and Will Harris off the 10-day injured list. And both players appeared in the game, with Soto striking out as a pinch-hitter and Harris pitching a scoreless eighth.
But the Nationals already trailed by a hefty margin at that point due to a disastrous top of the sixth that saw Joe Ross’ night end and Rainey turn a close game into a blowout.
Though the end results were excellent, Ross seemed to be playing with fire right from the get-go tonight. His very first pitch to Ronald Acuña Jr. was a 95 mph sinker up in the zone, and Acuña (who never met a first-pitch fastball he didn’t want to whack into the stratosphere) lined a single to left.
Ross would wipe out that leadoff single thanks to a double play grounder from Marcell Ozuna, but the pattern was already established. He would tempt fate with sinkers up in the zone and hope to live to tell about it.
And for four innings, he did just that, holding the Braves scoreless despite surrendering a hit in each frame. There were loud outs, including another one off Acuña’s bat that was hauled in by a leaping Victor Robles just shy of the center field wall, but Ross kept avoiding any real damage.
“I wouldn’t say I had my best effort, by any means,” Ross said. “Location-wise, definitely not. But they made some really good plays, so it kind of kept me in there for a little.”
Until Acuña hit a ball far enough that nobody could bail Ross out. With two out and nobody on in the fifth, the Braves star reached out and drove an outside fastball to right-center, over the out-of-town scoreboard for his 10th homer of the young season and a 1-0 Atlanta lead.
Ross took the mound to open the sixth but figured to have a short leash. And sure enough, he was pulled after another long out to the warning track and an infield single that had a Trea Turner throwing error tacked onto the back end of it. Ross’ pitch count was 86, but he didn’t look especially sharp, and Martinez had a fully fresh bullpen at his disposal, so the manager entrusted the rest of the inning to Rainey.
“He kept us in the ballgame,” Martinez said. “He gave up the one home run to Acuña, ... but he did get hit hard, and I thought in that particular moment we had a fresh bullpen. And I thought Rainey was the guy to get those two outs for us.”
That move proved to backfire. Rainey, who had looked better in recent outings, but still is attempting to rediscover his peak form of 2020, gave up a two-out RBI single to William Contreras, allowing the runner he inherited to score. And then after falling behind Cristian Pache and intentionally walking the No. 8 hitter to load the bases made perhaps his biggest mistake pitch of the season.
It was an 0-1 fastball, 95 mph but center cut. And Ynoa - who, by the way, homered in his last start and entered this one 4-for-10 on the season - destroyed it. The ball sailed to center field, cleared the fence by about 30 feet and sent the pro-Braves portion of a crowd of 8,156 into ecstasy.
“I’d seen that he’d been swinging it pretty well,” Rainey said. “So I knew going in you can’t take him lightly. And then obviously the first pitch, not really close to the zone and he kind of swings, pretty big swing. And then the next one was supposed to be down and away located, and it didn’t get here. It was something he could handle, and obviously he put a good swing on it.”
“We talked about the way he swings the bat,” Martinez said. “(Rainey) just made a bad pitch. I was hoping they’d throw him a couple sliders. He never gets off the fastball. And he threw him a fastball over the plate.”
What had been a frustrating but winnable game up to that point had now become a 6-0 deficit that felt insurmountable for a Nationals lineup that has had its moments here of late but has yet to prove it can do anything when facing a 23-year-old Braves righty named Huascar Ynoa.