This time, Marcell Ozuna hit the slam off Erick Fedde in a decisive third. The Nationals pushed in the eighth, revved by Trea Turner’s two-run homer, but couldn’t close the gap. They finished 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position. They had men on second and third with one out in the eighth, but A.J. Minter retired Yan Gomes with a swinging strikeout. Then Kyle Schwarber walked to load the bases with two outs, and Victor Robles lifted a first-pitch flyout as Juan Soto stood in the on-deck circle.
The grainy details were magnified throughout. The Nationals were just on the wrong end of them. Manager Dave Martinez didn’t swap Robles out for Soto or another pinch hitter because he had already burned Andrew Stevenson, his last available outfielder, in a double-switch before the top of the eighth. Soto is cleared to hit but not throw after he spent 15 days on the injured list with a strained left shoulder. Martinez chose to play it safe.
“I have to be smart with Juan. As much as bases loaded, that’s a situation that ... you know ... but I’m not going to put him in the field right now,” Martinez said. “Not until he tells me he is ready to go. That’s just the bottom line. Victor in that moment, against a lefty right there, I thought he had one of the best swings I’ve seen him take all year. He just got underneath it.”
“I’ll lose sleep over it, of course, because [Soto] is there,” Martinez added. “But in the long run, I know that we’re going to have him for the duration of the season.”
So Ozuna’s blast and a solo shot for William Contreras in the fifth were enough for the Braves (14-17). And the night’s biggest swing was surrounded by familiar context. The decision to intentionally walk Freddie Freeman, the batter before Ozuna in the third, was part of a larger trend for the Nationals. They entered the night with an MLB-high 15 intentional walks. The 16th, then, only distanced them from the next team (the Arizona Diamondbacks, with 11) and made them even more of an outlier.
One team, the Boston Red Sox, has yet to issue an intentional walk in 2021. Twenty-one others have issued five or fewer. Newer-age thinking is that it’s rarely advantageous to give up 90 feet. Through 26 games, though, and especially as of late, the Nationals have again disagreed.
There are typically more intentional walks in the National League than American League because teams can walk the eighth batter to face a pitcher. But the Nationals have issued eight intentional walks since April 27. That’s more than 22 teams did in all of a shortened 2020. The Nationals, by contrast, led the majors with 22 a year ago.
“If we got a base open or we want to stay away from a guy, we can do those kind of things to get the right matchup we want,” Martinez explained. “So we’re going to continue to do that.”
On Tuesday, in a series-opening defeat to the Braves, they intentionally walked Dansby Swanson in the sixth before pitcher Huascar Ynoa rocked a grand slam. Then Fedde, Martinez, Freeman and Ozuna collided in the third inning Wednesday. Fedde had worked an eight-pitch first, a 13-pitch second and had Ronald Acuña Jr. in the box with two outs in the third. It was 0-0. Contreras raced to third on a passed ball that bounced in front of catcher Yan Gomes and squirted away. And when Fedde walked Acuña, putting runners on the corners, Martinez made a quick decision after Acuña immediately stole second. Second base available because the passed ball permitted Conteras to advance. First was now open for Freeman.
Martinez held four fingers in the air. The reigning NL MVP dropped his bat and jogged down the line. The first domino was tapped.
“I try not to think about it. That’s a decision that out of my hands," Fedde said. “Whoever is in the box, I have to just focus on that. I don’t really think I’m picking or choosing who I’d prefer to have.”
Neither Freeman nor Ozuna has been his usual self this season. And in 13 career matchups with Fedde, including a soft groundout in the first, Freeman had two singles and five walks. But he has always crushed Washington, coming into this game with a .925 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 167 past meetings. Plus, since Fedde is a right-hander, his numbers suggest a matchup with Ozuna (a right-handed batter) was the smarter path.
The result didn’t favor that logic. Ozuna extended on an outside cutter and parked it just over the right field wall, his fourth homer of the year. As he circled the bases and Fedde blew on his hands amid a constant wind, the stadium filled with boos.
“Honestly, there’s nothing really to calculate,” Martinez said of walking Freeman. “With a base open? I’m going to do that 100 out of 100 times.”
The rest was marked by missed opportunities on offense. The Nationals wasted back-to-back singles to start the fifth. A big cheer came for Kyle Finnegan throwing an immaculate inning — nine pitches, nine strikes — in the sixth. Another came for Turner’s two-run shot in the eighth. Then the noise grew while the Nationals built a chance to tie it that inning.
But the threat ended once Robles, locked into a pivotal spot, popped Minter’s cutter to left. Atlanta caught the break.