If the last month of this lost season is about giving young players a chance to grow and take 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 pluses: Carter Kieboom and Lane Thomas delivered clutch hits in the late innings. Luis Garca produced a series of highlights at the plate and on the field in the seventh and eighth, capped by a 448-foot homer to midfield that briefly gave the Nats the lead. And Mason Thompson somehow squirmed his way out of a baseless jam in the seventh on just four pitches, with some key defensive assist from Garca and Ryan Zimmerman.
The Negative: Thompson wasn’t nearly as effective as he returned to the mound for the bottom of the eighth and racked up sky-high home runs for Freddie Freeman and Adam Duvall to turn a one-run lead into a one-run deficit.
And then, after a wild run in the top of the ninth inning, in which the Nationals tied the game again when the Braves were unable to turn in a potential game-ending double play Josh Bell’s sharp grounder to short, Wander Serum gave up the winning run on Joc Pederson’s bases loaded with two outs in the bottom of the tenth.
It was a painful way for a ball game that ended up very entertaining at times for the Nationals, who if nothing else can at least take comfort in finishing the National League East’s three remaining contenders in 2021.
The Nats, who set back-to-back loss 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 clear signs of what they can do, what the future holds for us,” manager Davey Martinez said in his post-game Zoom session with reporters. “I like the way the guys play. I hear it all the time from coaches of other teams, the players of other teams, how they respect the way we play the game. … There will come a day when we losing games once, we’re going to win three or four of those games.’
Things looked good for the scrappy young visitors as they scored in the sixth, seventh and eighth inning, starring Garca. He stood at the end of a handy 3-2-4 double play started by Zimmerman to score the first two outs of the bottom of the seventh inning, then made his own handy play on a comebacker deflected by Thompson to score the third out . the inning and prevent Atlanta from scoring.
“For me, I believe it’s that game where I covered first base,” Garca said through interpreter Octavio Martinez when asked which of the two gems he was most proud of. “I reacted quickly and ran as fast as I could to first base. I read the piece early and anticipated it, and as soon as I saw it come out I rushed to it and reacted well.”
Then, for good measure, Garca launched Richard Rodrguez’s go-ahead homer in the top of the eighth, an undeniably direct midfield that the 21-year-old admired.
“At that point I was very excited and very happy to be able to put the team ahead with that home run,” said Garca. “Anything I can do to help the team win is my goal, and at the time it was pretty big.”
If only the Nationals could hold onto the good vibes. Thompson, forced to pitch two innings, in part because Davey Martinez had to burn six relievers on Wednesday-evening, immediately handed up homeruns to Freeman and Duvall, giving the Braves the lead again.
And while the Nats came back in the top of the ninth thanks to Thomas’ leadoff triple and Ozzie Albies’ throwing error trying to turn around a 6-4-3 double play, they couldn’t finish the deal there and then watched Suero (despite a 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth) took the loss in the bottom of the tenth in a frenzied ballgame.
“I knew the situation with our bullpen. It was quite taxed yesterday,” said Suero via Octavio Martinez. “So I knew I was probably going to be extended a bit. All I could do was try to help as much as possible and stay positive.”
No matchup has been less favorable for Eric Fedde over the course of his career than the Braves. He went into 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 games this season.
It started off strong for Fedde tonight, however, when he retired 10 of the first 11 batters he faced, the lone exception being a solo homerun by backup catcher Stephen Vogt in the bottom of the third. Other than that one error, his cutter was on point, which led to five early strikeouts. And his number of pitches 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 gave him in the top of the first when a walk from Thomas, a Juan Soto infield single, a Bell RBI double and a Yadiel Hernandez The RBI groundout got the job done. But the line-up then fell silent against Atlanta-starter Huascar Ynoa, who prevented the Nats from scoring again before leaving after the fifth.
Fedde, on the other hand, started to falter. He didn’t fall victim to sustained rallies, but he did fall victim to a handful of extra-base hits. He gave up only five batters in six innings, but those came in the form of two doubles and three solo homeruns.
Two of those home runs came from the most unlikely source: Vogt, who hadn’t crossed the fence at all in 83 previous at bats for the Braves this season. The other, by Jorge Soler, came on Fedde’s first delivery of the bottom of the sixth to give Atlanta a 4-3 lead.
“He was good,” Davey Martinez said of Fedde. “For me it was more mental mistakes. We’re discussing a game plan, and he just decides he’s going to throw a fastball when he shouldn’t, and it goes a long way. And not just throwing a fastball. If you want to throw a fastball, you can’t throw it through the middle. That hurt us quite a bit. You have to throw the ball purposefully, with meaning and you can’t just say, ‘I’ll throw the ball through him’, because these batters are good.”
The Nationals reacted immediately in the seventh, giving up a leadoff double to Garca and an RBI single to Thomas to tie the game again. They had a golden chance to take the lead after loading the bases with one out, but Bell’s 104.6 mph comeback caught Tyler Matzek’s foot and the lefty managed to retrieve the ball and make it just in time. spinning the record to catch Thomas. And when Hernandez’s 101.2 mph line drive to the left was caught by Duvall, the rally was halted, which tied the game in the late innings.
There would be a lot more drama on tap.
“We fought back, that’s all we could do,” Davey Martinez said. “We made some pitching errors and I talk about it all the time: you can’t make mistakes against good batters. As you could see tonight, they hit them from afar.”
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