Sean Nolin’s ejection eight pitches in Wednesday night added some drama to what might otherwise have been an insignificant ballgame in Atlanta. But it also set in motion a link of falling dominoes that would impact not only that game but tonight’s series finale and perhaps some portion of this weekend’s series in Pittsburgh.
For those who missed it: Nolin was ejected by plate umpire Lance Barksdale after twice throwing fastballs at Freddie Freeman - the first one sailed behind his head, the second one drilled him in the hip - in apparent retaliation for Braves closer Will Smith plunking Nationals star Juan Soto during Tuesday night’s game.
Nolin denied any intent, insisting the ball slipped out of his hand on a humid night. Manager Davey Martinez insisted he’s never instructed anyone on his team to intentionally throw at an opposing player. Soto and Freeman put their arms around each other and enjoyed a friendly moment at the end of the inning, and Freeman then went over to the Nats dugout for a cordial conversation with Martinez.
So no harm done, right?
Well, there is the little matter of the state of the Nationals pitching staff as a result of all this.
Nolin’s ejection forced Martinez to cobble together 8 2/3 innings from what already had been an overworked and inexperienced bullpen. To their credit, the six relievers who entered to pitch did yeoman’s work, combining to allow only two runs and make a 4-2 victory possible.
But it wasn’t easy.
Martinez and pitching coach Jim Hickey mapped out a plan in their head to get through the game. Perhaps most important was the first reliever who would come out of the pen and hopefully provide multiple innings of quality work. They chose right-hander Patrick Murphy, who delivered with 2 2/3 hitless innings on a career-high 46 pitches.
“I felt pretty good,” Murphy said in a postgame Zoom session with reporters. “After I threw the first two (innings), I said I’m good to go another one. In that situation, I was just trying to go as deep as I can and help the bullpen because it was a heavy workload. The most I could do was provide length and pass it on to the next guy.”
Murphy gave way to Andres Machado, who handed it off to Mason Thompson, who got the ball to Austin Voth, who departed in favor of Wander Suero, who bridged the gap to closer Kyle Finnegan in the ninth. It all worked out far better than anyone could’ve dreamed.
“We wanted to try to get as many innings as possible from Murph. We thought he’d be the guy,” Martinez said. “And then the game dictates who’s coming in next. That being said, in the back of your mind, as much as you want to throw other guys two innings, you really have to think about tomorrow. What are we going to do tomorrow? Which I still haven’t figured out yet.”
Indeed, that’s the domino effect of it all. Who’s left to pitch tonight’s series finale? Murphy and Voth (who threw 40 pitches in 1 2/3 innings) are almost certainly unavailable. Machado, who threw 24 pitches Wednesday after throwing eight pitches Tuesday, likewise is probably out. The three relievers who didn’t pitch in this one (Ryne Harper, Alberto Baldonado, Sam Clay) should be available.
And then there are a couple of starters who could find their way into the mix. Josh Rogers, following a solid debut in last Saturday’s doubleheader against the Mets, was set up to start a game this weekend in Pittsburgh. But he might now be needed sooner. And even Nolin (should he avoid immediate suspension by Major League Baseball or demotion to Triple-A Rochester by the Nationals) could figure into the mix 24 hours after his extremely short start.
“We’re going to talk to (Rogers), and he might have to be available tomorrow,” Martinez said. “I’m going to actually talk to Sean Nolin and see if he could be available for a few innings tomorrow.”
Of course, the one thing that could help more than anything else: A strong start by Erick Fedde, negating the need for much bullpen usage.