On a night when Stephen Strasburg once again looked off and was pulled in the second inning - officially due to a tight trapezius muscle in his upper right back that will require an MRI in the morning - the Nationals found themselves faced with a dilemma.
Having already lost five straight with a lineup that has turned the act of driving in a run into the most daunting task in the world, they could’ve packed their proverbial bags and departed with heads hung low. Or they could brush off Strasburg’s latest abbreviated start, not to mention their own early struggles with runners in scoring position, and actually seize control of this ballgame in Atlanta.
In pulling off the latter, the Nationals didn’t just handily beat the Braves 11-6. They showed something they made their hallmark in winning the 2019 World Series but too often have lacked during the agonizing first 50 games of this season: grit.
“When we were out on the mound and things happened to Strasburg, they were sitting there saying: This is going to be a good day,” manager Davey Martinez shared during his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “It stinks right now, but we’re going to make this a good day. And you saw what they did.”
With their best offensive showing in nearly two weeks, the Nats produced sustained offense throughout the game. A lineup that had scored in only four of its previous 39 innings scored in five of the first eight innings tonight at Truist Park.
Contributions came from nearly everyone. Ryan Zimmerman delivered a two-run homer to continue his torrid season facing lefties. Kyle Schwarber delivered a pair of RBI singles off southpaws. Yan Gomes tacked on some key insurance runs late with a two-run double.
And Juan Soto, whose rare slump had become this team’s biggest area of concern, broke out with a 3-for-4, four-RBI night that included a walk and an opposite-field homer just to prove he can still elevate a baseball.
“It just feels great,” said Soto, who snapped a homerless streak that lasted 50 plate appearances. “A long time to get that feeling, to hit a ball that hard and just run around the bases. It just feels great to be like that and hit a homer again.”
Throw in 7 2/3 innings of relief from a bullpen that was asked to do a lot - Austin Voth led the charge with three innings and 50 pitches - and the Nationals snapped their losing streak on a night when Strasburg’s early departure could’ve derailed everything.
“I know he’s frustrated ... but for us it’s frustrating, too, because we know what Stephen can be, and we know we need that guy if we’re going to get to where we want to go this year,” Zimmerman said. “I can tell you it’s not for lack of effort or for lack of wanting to be out there. I’ve known Stephen for a long time, and he wants the ball as much as anyone else and puts in as much work as anyone else. That’s what makes you feel even worse for him, whatever’s going on.”
As will be the case until he’s able to consistently take the mound every five days without issue, all eyes were on Strasburg from the get-go tonight, looking for signs either of progress or problems. And sure enough, the problems were immediately on display.
Strasburg opened his evening with four straight fastballs out of the zone to Ronald Acuña Jr., the last of which registered only 90 mph and convinced his manager and director of athletic training to walk to the mound to check on him.
“He came out, and the velo wasn’t quite there, and he started yanking balls again,” Martinez said. “I thought something doesn’t look right. ‘Cause he doesn’t walk a guy the way he walked him.”
Strasburg insisted he felt fine and remained in the game, but his velocity and mechanics suggested anything but. He started throwing pitches in the upper 80s that registered as changeups in Major League Baseball’s official pitch-tracking system but in reality were diminished fastballs. He again was falling off to the first base side of the mound on his follow-through.
Somehow, Strasburg got through the bottom of the first unscathed and was allowed to bat for himself in the top of the second. But he wasn’t willing to attempt more than one swing at the plate - a real red flag in Martinez’s mind - and his return trip to the mound for the bottom of that inning was a short one. After a five-pitch leadoff walk, Strasburg tried to react to a 109.6 mph comebacker off William Contreras’ bat and wound up getting struck first on the heel of his glove and then possibly off his right hand.
To the mound again strolled Martinez and Paul Lessard, and this time it appeared the Nats manager was trying to convince his starter he needed to come out of the game. Strasburg eventually relented, and so after a 30-pitch outing dripping with reason for concern, the veteran right-hander - who declined to speak to reporters after the game as is standard practice for every starting pitcher - again faces an uncertain immediate future.
“When you have to take someone out of the game, especially one of your starting pitchers, I’m always concerned until I know what’s going on,” Martinez said. “It’s concerning. It was on my mind all night.”
Amid all that chaos, though, was a ballgame that still needed to be played. A ballgame that saw the Nationals’ moribund lineup finally string together multiple rallies and take advantage of an opposing pitcher on the ropes.
The evening didn’t start off so well. They scored a run in the top of the first thanks to the first of Max Fried’s three wild pitches (which combined with Contreras’ two passed balls made for a wild night for Atlanta’s starting battery), but then struck out in three straight at-bats with a runner in scoring position.
They stranded two more runners in scoring position in the second, then were on the verge of doing it again in the third until Schwarber stepped in and stopped the madness. With a two-out, RBI single off a lefty, Schwarber gave the Nationals the hit with a runner in scoring position they so desperately needed and gave them a 2-1 lead.
And then, at last, came a rally. A legit, sustained rally that plated four runs in the top of the fourth. With two on and two out, Soto stayed on a fastball from Fried and drove it the other way for a two-run single, perhaps the struggling star’s best hit in more than a week.
“That was the key that got me set up, when I hit that single to left field,” he said. “It just got me really on and really ready.”
And when Zimmerman greeted reliever Edgar Santana with a first-pitch, two-run homer to right-center, the Nationals had themselves a 6-1 lead. And, for the first time in a long time, some breathing room.
“We’ve had one or two games like this,” Zimmerman said. “And then the next three or four, we don’t score runs or we don’t get opportunities. So it’s nice to do what we did tonight and string together a bunch of good at-bats. The key is to keep it going and be a little more consistent. We’ve got a talented lineup. We’ve just got to use this and hopefully get some positive momentum going.”