After everything that had happened in the past day, the Washington Nationals still had a chance to salvage a series win against the Atlanta Braves. They had struggled to generate offense all Sunday afternoon, mostly against journeyman relievers, but had given themselves opportunities in the eighth, ninth and 10th innings.
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None panned out. Instead, the decisive blow came in the top of the 10th on a two-run, pinch-hit home run from Atlanta’s Johan Camargo, which created a deficit the Nationals could not overcome in a 4-3 loss at Nationals Park . On the mound, reliever Tanner Rainey spun around and watched as what was once a 97-mph fastball sailed over the wall in right field, as the game, and the series, slipped away.
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“He just yanked the fastball,” Manager Dave Martinez said of Rainey’s pitch to Camargo. “He just yanked really bad. It was supposed to be away. It came in.”
The Nationals mounted a rally in the bottom of the inning, scoring one before stranding two. It wasn’t enough. The extra-inning loss soured the end of an 11-day homestand that, less than 24 hours earlier, seemed as though it couldn’t have been going better.
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During this stretch, the Nationals had started to re-position themselves as legitimate contenders in the NL East, completing a three-game sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies and securing a dramatic 4-3 win over the Braves on Friday night. On Saturday, they built and maintained a lead that climbed to four runs in the sixth.
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Then everything unraveled. The bullpen allowed as many runs as it got outs (nine) in what became a 13-9 loss. The collapse’s catalyst, embattled reliever Trevor Rosenthal, was released before Sunday’s game. The Nationals needed to call up a new Sunday starter, Austin Voth, because they had used one of their candidates, Joe Ross, out of the bullpen the night before.
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[ Trevor Rosenthal released by Nationals after ghastly outing against Braves ]
If the Nationals had secured both games, they would be 4½ games behind the first-place Braves heading into a series against the last-place Miami Marlins. But Sunday’s loss instead tugged them down to 8½ games out.
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“We know we’re capable of keeping up with any of these guys,” catcher Yan Gomes said. “We gave ourselves a chance to win today. It just didn’t come our way. But no shame, no hanging our heads. We’ve still got to look forward.”
Amid the chaos of the weekend, the team received steadiness from a surprising source, as Voth shone in his season debut
The spot starter gave the Nationals six efficient innings, working fast, striking out seven and walking none on a day Martinez seemed to intimate his fifth starter role was far from decided. Even though Voth allowed solo home runs to Josh Donaldson and Ronald Acuña Jr. — the game’s only scoring until the seventh — he still gave the Nationals more than they could have expected
“I really liked what I saw,” Martinez said. “We’ll see where he fits in, but I was very impressed.”
Voth’s increased command was made more impressive by his huge jump in velocity, which he attributed to nine days of rest since his last start and the fact that he gained 10 pounds while working out this offseason. Last year, during his first toe-dip into MLB, his four-seam fastball averaged 91.3 mph. In this start, he averaged 93.9 and regularly touched 95 and 96 mph on the corners, making opposing hitters flail. In Voth’s first two times through the Braves’ batting order, he struck out young Atlanta stars Acuña and Dansby Swanson both times with a fastball in that range
“Curveball and change-up [kept them off balance], as long as I kept them down was the main thing,” Voth said. “I threw a couple pitches that were up in the zone that I kind of got away with, but when I was down in the zone was probably when I was at my best.”
[ Last time out: With shot at .500, Nationals’ bullpen implodes against Braves ]
Voth kept the Nationals in the game when they needed it most, because the Nationals looked overmatched at the plate for most of the first six innings. It wasn’t as if the Braves’ starter, Mike Soroka, dominated
The 21-year-old right-hander, who has a 2.07 ERA and has been mentioned as an outside candidate for the NL Cy Young Award, left after two innings because Voth plunked him at the plate with a fastball on what appeared to be the right forearm. Journeyman reliever Josh Tomlin entered in the third, allowed a leadoff single and then improbably mowed through the next 12 batters he faced
“They want to hit,” Martinez said. “[Today was] just one of those days that happen. We scored late, we had our chances, and we couldn’t capitalize.”
In the seventh, the Nationals’ bats awoke. Juan Soto got a hanging curveball in the middle of the plate from Grant Dayton and crushed it for a towering, 385-foot home run that landed a few rows up in the right field bleachers. Then, in an echo of the offense they had strung together Saturday night, the Nationals used three consecutive singles and an error by Acuña in center field to push the tying run across
The Nationals had a chance to pull ahead in the eighth. They put runners on first and second with no outs, forced the Braves to draw the infield in and put one of their better left-handed hitters, Adam Eaton, at the plate against right-handed reliever Anthony Swarzak. Eaton bunted, and third baseman Donaldson charged, spun and threw the lead runner out at third
The next hitter, slugger Anthony Rendon, hit a rocket, but right at Donaldson, who started an inning-ending double play. When the Nationals failed to score in the next inning, too, after putting a runner on second with two outs, the game went to extras. In the end, the Nationals paid for their missed opportunities Sunday. Time will tell if they will pay for them again later
Sam Fortier Sam Fortier is a sports reporter for The Washington Post. Follow
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