If you’re wondering - for practical, in-game purposes - what will be different the next two months from everything that came before it, here was a good example in the top of the sixth this afternoon at Nationals Park.
Erick Fedde, who had been cruising along against a depleted Cubs lineup, opened that frame allowing a single to Andrew Romine, then a two-run homer to Rafael Ortega at the end of a long, seven-pitch at-bat. The Nationals’ lead was down to one, Fedde’s pitch count was up to 91 and inside the dugout Davey Martinez had to have been tempted to turn to his bullpen.
It’s what Martinez has done in that same situation for 3 1/2 seasons now, especially with a less-accomplished starter like Fedde on the mound. The situation, however, has changed. Where Martinez’s sole task for 3 1/2 seasons was to do everything in his power to “go 1-0 today,” now there is some leeway to leave a less-experienced pitcher out there and see if he can get out of it on his own.
So when Fedde did just that, retiring the next three batters he faced to complete the inning and raise his pitch count to a season-high 108, it felt like tangible evidence of the way things will be in August and September that will be in stark contrast to April, May, June and July.
“I’m glad he didn’t come out to get me,” Fedde said later in his Zoom session with reporters. “I felt good. I felt strong. It was kind of my chance to empty the tank. I know this rotation’s a lot different right now. ... I definitely wanted to make sure those last couple of outs, I left nothing but my best out there.”
That the Nationals proceeded to watch Wander Suero blow that lead two innings later when he served up Ortega’s third homer of the day before storming back to win 6-5 on Yadiel Hernandez’s walk-off homer made for a more roundabout path to victory for them and a crowd of 25,250 on this rainy Sunday afternoon. Wins are still nice, especially when they secure a weekend series victory (albeit over a Cubs franchise now going through its own massive rebuild).
“I just gave him a big hug and said: ‘Thank you,’ ” Martinez said of Hernandez, who became the first Nationals player with four hits and a walk-off homer in a game since Elijah Dukes in 2008.
The rest of this season, though, is going to be about more than just wins and losses now. It’s about evaluation. It’s about development. And it’s about challenging potential long-term pieces of the puzzle to see if they can handle situations of greater consequence than they’re used to.
Today, that included late-inning relief appearances from Gabe Klobosits, who pitched a 1-2-3 seventh, and Suero, who did not pitch a 1-2-3 eighth. Handed a two-run lead, the right-hander got into trouble when he issued a one-out, four-pitch walk of pinch-hitter Willson Contreras. He then threw four straight changeups to Ortega, who blasted the last of them down the right field line for, improbably, his third homer of the day and fourth in less than 24 hours.
“He’s a good fastball hitter,” Martinez said. “I know he hit a changeup, but it was right down the middle. But he gets to the fastball. We’ve got to mix pitches up against that guy. Thank God he’s gone, and we don’t see him no more. Today, he was Babe Ortega.”
The Nationals did bounce back from the game-tying shot with an even bigger blast of their own. Leading off the bottom of the ninth, Hernandez (who already homered in his previous at-bat) drove a 100-mph fastball from Manuel Rodríguez to left field and into the visitors’ bullpen for the game-ending homer.
“In that particular situation, I’m looking for a fastball, anything hard,” Hernandez said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “Whether it’s in, away, down, up, I’m just looking for something hard. And on that particular pitch, I took advantage. I reacted quickly to the pitch, and it worked out for me.”
The late-inning drama, as exciting as it was, shouldn’t overshadow what occurred earlier to the Nationals’ starter. Like Joe Ross, who took the mound Saturday night, Fedde now has enough job security to know he’s going to start every five days the rest of the season. And as long as things go relatively well, both have every reason to expect to be in the opening day 2022 rotation.
What the Nationals need from Fedde, just as they need from Ross, is consistency start to start. He’s looked great at times this season, not nearly up to snuff at others, especially over the last month after he returned from a minor oblique strain.
Today, Fedde looked about as sharp as he has all season, with one important caveat. He couldn’t keep Ortega in the ballpark, something that proved far more difficult for the Nationals as a whole this weekend than anyone could’ve ever imagined.
The 30-year-old journeyman outfielder entered Saturday with five career homers in 561 big league plate appearances. He then proceeded to hit four of them in the span of seven at-bats, including a pair this afternoon off Fedde. The first came right off the bat in the opening moments of the game, putting the Cubs up 1-0. The second came in the aforementioned top of the sixth, a two-run shot into the right field bullpen.
“I had a lot of my pitches working, and was aggressive,” Fedde said. “Unfortunately, I ran into a guy who was super red-hot. I wish I maybe pitched around him, but with the lead a lot throughout that game, I just wanted to be aggressive.”
It really was all Fedde would give up in this game. Ortega went 3-for-3 and drove in all three runs against him. Everyone else in the Chicago lineup went 1-for-18 with a walk and eight strikeouts.
So when it came time to decide whether to let his starter try to finish the sixth on his own, with no more margin for error, or turn to his bullpen, Martinez decided to stick with his starter.
“I wanted to keep him in the game and let him earn that spot,” the manager said. “And it was awesome. He felt good about himself coming out, and he did well. It’s a good outing for him, so we’ll build off that.”
Consider this the latest evidence of the brave new world the Nationals and their manager have entered.