Cut to Tuesday night here, when Smith plunked Soto with a 94-mph fastball, right in the side. There were no outward reactions from the Nationals’ dugout. After the game, Manager Dave Martinez told reporters that he hadn’t considered whether Smith did it on purpose. But Wednesday, in a 4-2 win for the Nationals, retaliation seemed to fall to journeyman starter Sean Nolin, making just the 36th appearance of a winding and injury-filled career.
With his seventh pitch of the night, Nolin threw a 90-mph fastball behind Braves star Freddie Freeman. With his eighth, he threw 91 straight at Freeman’s hip, leading the four umpires to convene by the mound. Nolin was tossed, briefly pleaded his case and shouted at Lance Barksdale, the plate ump, while walking to an early shower.
“No, it’s the first inning of the game,” Nolin said when asked if he took the mound with Soto, Smith and Freeman on his mind. “And obviously it’s super humid out, compared to places we’ve been playing. It just happens. The ball slips out of your hand. Rosin, for me, doesn’t do much.”
So he wasn’t trying to send a message?
“No,” he flatly responded. “I wasn’t.”
Martinez, still in a soft cast after undergoing ankle surgery last week, yelled a bit from a chair in the dugout. Again, no one hopped the rails to argue or scrap on the field. In theory, the sequence followed baseball tradition, the Nationals protecting their young right fielder — and one of the sport’s best players — by having Nolin throw at an opponent of equal stature.
The result, though, aside from a few tense moments, was 8⅔ gutsy innings for a struggling bullpen. And Nolin, a 31-year-old lefty, a guy who went almost six years between pitches off a major league mound, could face suspension while on the edge of Washington’s roster.
“I talked to him, and he said the ball slipped and he tried to go in,” Martinez recalled. “Said the first one slipped, the second one he tried to go in.”
“There was no warning,” Nolin said of getting ejected just three batters into his outing. “Obviously I was a little confused, because after the first pitch flew out of my hand, there didn’t seem to be anything going on. So I was a little surprised.”
It was only Monday morning that Martinez called his relievers “overworked.” Righty Patrick Murphy replaced Nolin, recording eight outs (half on strikeouts) without yielding a hit. He did walk two but was otherwise sharp throughout a career-high 46 pitches. And after he stranded Jorge Soler and Freeman in the first, Soto jogged to catch up with Freeman at second.
Freeman, a 31-year-old first baseman, draped his arm around Soto’s shoulders. They smiled and chatted, and Freeman later told reporters that he wanted to let Soto know that Smith wasn’t trying to hit him Tuesday. From there, Freeman headed to Washington’s dugout, where Martinez said he told Freeman that he never tells pitchers to hit anyone. Situation defused, then, until Soto crushed a 432-foot homer off Richard Rodriguez in the top of the seventh.
Soto was in no rush rounding the bases, then appeared to blow a kiss to the Braves’ bullpen in right-center. Soto noted that it was for fans above the bullpen, a group shouting smack throughout the game.
“Feels really good,” Soto said with a laugh. “It was impressive, how far it landed.”
After Murphy, righty Andres Machado entered for his fourth appearance in five days. The Nationals held a 2-0 lead despite only having one hit, a product of little to no control for Braves starter Touki Toussaint. In the top of the first, before Nolin fired at Freeman, leadoff man Lane Thomas reached by throwing error, Toussaint plunked Alcides Escobar, then Thomas scored after back-to-back groundouts for Soto and Josh Bell.
In the fourth, Bell crushed Toussaint’s first-pitch curve for his 25th homer. Toussaint walked the next two batters before exiting with this ugly line: three innings, two runs (one earned), one hit, four walks and three strikeouts. Machado yielded a solo homer to Adam Duvall in the bottom half, trimming the cushion in half. The Nationals (58-81) had one hit through six innings and still remained ahead of the Braves (73-65).
But Eddie Rosario tied it with a solo homer off Austin Voth in the sixth. Then Soto had the last word, his shot holding up as the game-winner as Voth, Wander Suero and Kyle Finnegan recorded the final 12 outs. Luis García drove in an insurance run with an eighth-inning double.
“For me, everything was about our bullpen today,” Martinez said. “Our bullpen was outstanding.”
This is probably not the last time Washington has to navigate protecting Soto. At just 22 and, remarkably, in his major league fourth season, he’s already a premier player. He has reached base in more than 50 percent of his plate appearances since the all-star break. He also has a between-pitches routine, called the “Soto Shuffle,” that can bother opposing dugouts. His teammates often wear the image of Soto stomping the dirt, eyes fixed on some poor pitcher, on T-shirts during batting practice.
And if the Nationals did feel direct support was needed, Nolin was there. Next Martinez will see if he can pitch an inning or two in Thursday’s series finale.