Wednesday showed the effects of missing nine players who remain in isolation or quarantine because they either tested positive for the coronavirus or were potentially exposed to an infected teammate. Wednesday, on its own, brought Erick Fedde stumbling through a midday start, then Tanner Rainey and the offense wasting six scoreless innings from Stephen Strasburg later in the afternoon.
“For most of the at-bat I was trying to elevate,” Rainey explained, adding later that he hadn’t seen live hitters since the team’s spring training finale March 29. “Got into a 3-2 count and I missed. He didn’t.”
“You could look at it both ways, honestly,” Manager Dave Martinez said of whether the doubleheader was encouraging because the Nationals were right there or discouraging because they flubbed two chances to fill the win column. “First game was kind of disappointing because we scored four runs in the first. But you’re talking about a pretty good team over there. You got to play the whole game.”
Of the 11 players in coronavirus protocol, three — Patrick Corbin, Jon Lester and Brad Hand — were expected to be on Martinez’s Opening Day pitching staff. The absences of Corbin and Lester create two holes in the rotation. Without Hand, Martinez is down his closer. And without Will Harris, who is on the 10-day injured list with right hand inflammation, the bullpen thins even more.
That’s why Martinez needed Fedde to provide at least four innings Wednesday. Five would have been ideal. Instead, in what felt like a replay for Fedde, he logged just 1⅔ innings and allowed six runs (five earned) on six hits and three walks. The first run scored on a passed ball when catcher Jonathan Lucroy missed a fastball in the zone. The next five, all packed into the second, came off contact in a 2-2 count (against Max Fried, the pitcher), 0-0, 2-2 and 1-1.
Fedde was hurt by a mix of falling behind and not being able to finish off hitters. The Nationals had rallied off Fried in the first, batting around to take a 4-1 lead, before Fedde exited to a 6-4 mess. His sinker hovered around 94 mph but was too often up in the zone. He left 5⅓ innings of work for a bullpen that will have one day of rest ahead of a three-game series at Dodger Stadium. The trip will begin with the Los Angeles Dodgers celebrating their first World Series title in 32 years.
“When I’m at my best, I’m sinking the ball down in the zone and building off of that,” said Fedde, whose short outing set up Sam Clay, a 27-year-old rookie, to strike out Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna in his major league debut. “Just never really was able to get that pitch established.”
So Strasburg was tasked with easing some pressure off the bullpen in the second game. He yielded a hit in the first, a single by Ozzie Albies, then retired seven straight. He set down Austin Riley with a diving curve. He got Dansby Swanson swinging at his fading change-up. Then Cristian Pache had no chance with a change-up that disappeared below the zone.
He worked a 1-2-3 sixth by striking Ronald Acuña Jr. out looking at a fastball, striking Albies out swinging at a fastball and getting Freeman to tap a soft grounder on his 85th pitch. Strasburg struck out eight, yielded one hit and used 16 change-ups to counter Atlanta’s approach of ambushing pitchers in early counts. And almost eight months after his last start here, he quieted the doubts in his head — and from those who say he is too fragile — by burying a division rival.
“You start to realize that those doubts tell lies,” said Strasburg, who missed most of 2020 after undergoing carpal tunnel surgery in his right hand. “And you can choose to listen to them, or you can choose to accept the fact that you’re going to go out there and give it everything you absolutely have. And that’s something you can always live with.”
But the Nationals’ bats were too quiet against right-hander Huascar Ynoa. He matched Strasburg, blank frame for blank frame, despite Strasburg tagging him for a stand-up double in the third. The pitchers needed an hour to get through four innings. Ynoa went five scoreless in his longest appearance in the majors. He did so with the Nationals missing four starters in first baseman Josh Bell, left fielder Kyle Schwarber, second baseman Josh Harrison and catcher Yan Gomes, who are all on the covid-19 IL. Those are some explanations for why they managed only two hits off him and relievers Luke Jackson and Sean Newcomb.
Martinez predicted the team could get a few of its regulars back on the upcoming road swing through Los Angeles and St. Louis. Before then, though, the Nationals had to find one run for Strasburg and never did. They just watched Sandoval bounce around the bases while Rainey circled the mound in frustration. They felt Tuesday dissolve into Wednesday and the realities they face.
Next the Dodgers wait out west, where the cracks could really show.