If the final month of this lost season is about giving young players a chance to grow and establish their place within the Nationals’ plans in 2022 and beyond, tonight’s 7-6, 10-inning loss to the Braves provided no shortage of evidence for several potential building blocks on the roster. In both positive and negative ways.
The positives: Carter Kieboom and Lane Thomas delivered clutch hits in the late innings. Luis García produced a highlight-reel sequence at the plate and in the field in the seventh and eighth, capped by a 448-foot homer to center field that briefly gave the Nats the lead. And Mason Thompson somehow wriggled his way out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the seventh on only four pitches, with some key defensive help from García and Ryan Zimmerman.
The negative: Thompson wasn’t nearly so effective when he returned to the mound for the bottom of the eighth, serving up towering homers to Freddie Freeman and Adam Duvall to turn a one-run lead into a one-run deficit.
And then after a wild sequence in the top of the ninth that saw the Nationals tie the game again when the Braves couldn’t turn a possible game-ending double play on Josh Bell’s sharp grounder to short, Wander Suero gave up the winning run on Joc Pederson’s bases-loaded, two-out single in the bottom of the 10th.
It was a painful way for a ballgame that at times was highly entertaining to end for the Nationals, who if nothing else can at least take solace they’re done facing the National League East’s three remaining contenders in 2021.
The Nats, who clinched back-to-back losing records after a run of eight consecutive winning seasons, finished 5-14 against the Braves, 6-13 against the Phillies and 8-11 against the Mets. Check the final standings in 3 1/2 weeks to see if that made any difference in determining a division champion.
“Our young guys are learning and you’re seeing some bright signs of what they can do, what the future holds for us,” manager Davey Martinez said in his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “I love the way the guys are playing. I hear it all the time from coaches on other teams, the players on other teams, how they respect the way we play the game. ... There will come a day where we’re losing one-run games, we’ll start winning three or four of those games.”
Things were looking up for the scrappy, young visitors when they scored in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, with García in a starring role. He was on the tail end of a nifty 3-2-4 double play started by Zimmerman to record the first two outs of the bottom of the seventh, then made his own nifty play on a comebacker deflected by Thompson to record the third out of the inning and prevent Atlanta from scoring.
“To me, I believe it’s that play where I covered first base,” García said via interpreter Octavio Martinez when asked which of the two gems he was more proud of. “I reacted quickly and ran as quickly as I could to first base. I read the play early and anticipated it, and as soon as I saw it materialize, I ran over quickly and reacted well.”
Then for good measure García launched the go-ahead homer off Richard Rodríguez in the top of the eighth, a no-doubter to straightaway center field that the 21-year-old stood and admired.
“In the moment, I was very excited and very happy that I was able to put the team ahead with that home run,” García said. “Anything I can do to help the team win is my goal, and in that moment, it was pretty big.”
If only the Nationals could sustain the good vibes. Thompson, forced to pitch two innings in part because Davey Martinez had to burn up six relievers Wednesday night, immediately surrendered homers to Freeman and Duvall, giving the Braves the lead again.
And though the Nats came back in the top of the ninth thanks to Thomas’ leadoff triple and Ozzie Albies’ throwing error trying to turn a 6-4-3 double play, they couldn’t finish the deal there and then watched as Suero (despite a 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth) took the loss in the bottom of the 10th of a crazy ballgame.
“I knew the situation with our bullpen. It was taxed yesterday quite a bit,” Suero said via Octavio Martinez. “So I knew I would probably get extended a little bit. All I could do was try to help out as much as I can and try to stay positive.”
There has been no matchup less favorable for Erick Fedde during the course of his career than the Braves. He entered the evening 0-4 with an 11.92 ERA and 2.494 WHIP in seven games (six starts) against them, 0-3 with an 11.12 ERA and a 2.206 WHIP in three previous encounters this season.
Things got off to a strong start for Fedde tonight, though, when he retired 10 of the first 11 batters he faced, the lone exception a solo homer by backup catcher Stephen Vogt in the bottom of the third. Aside from that one mistake, his cutter was on point, leading to five early strikeouts. And his pitch count was a modest 44 after three innings, setting him up for a much-needed long outing.
And Fedde was boosted by the quick 2-0 lead his teammates supplied him in the top of the first, when a Thomas walk, a Juan Soto infield single, a Bell RBI double and a Yadiel Hernandez RBI groundout got the job done. But the lineup went silent after that against Atlanta starter Huascar Ynoa, who kept the Nats from scoring again before departing after the fifth.
Fedde, on the other hand, began to falter. He wasn’t victimized by sustained rallies, but he was victimized by a handful of extra-base hits. He allowed only five batters to reach against him in six innings, but they came in the form of two doubles and three solo homers.
Two of those homers came from the unlikeliest source: Vogt, who hadn’t cleared the fence at all in 83 previous plate appearances for the Braves this season. The other, from Jorge Soler, came on Fedde’s first pitch of the bottom of the sixth and gave Atlanta a 4-3 lead.
“He was good,” Davey Martinez said of Fedde. “For me, it was more mental mistakes. We go over a gameplan, and he just decides he’s going to throw a fastball when he shouldn’t, and it gets hit a long way. And not just throw a fastball. You want to throw a fastball, you can’t throw it down the middle. That’s hurt us quite a bit. You’ve got to throw the ball with purpose, with meaning and you can’t just say: ‘I’m going to throw the ball by him,’ because these hitters, they’re good.”
The Nationals had an immediate response in the seventh, getting a leadoff double from García and an RBI single from Thomas to tie the game again. They had a golden opportunity to take the lead after loading the bases with one out, but Bell’s 104.6 mph comebacker caught Tyler Matzek’s foot and the lefty managed to retrieve the ball and flip to the plate just in time to get Thomas. And when Hernandez’s 101.2 mph line drive to left was caught by Duvall, the rally was quashed, leaving the game tied heading into the late innings.
There would be plenty more drama yet on tap.
“We battled back, that’s all we could do,” Davey Martinez said. “We made some mistakes pitching-wise and I talk about it all the time: You can’t make mistakes to good hitters. As you could see tonight, they hit them a long way.”