Dansby Swanson had hit a two-run, walk-off homer to lift the host Atlanta Braves over the Washington Nationals, 7-6, on Monday night at Truist Park. Hudson slumped his shoulders. He had been handed a three-run lead after Juan Soto stretched it with a solo homer in the top of the ninth. It just wasn’t enough to weather two blasts in the bottom half — the first a two-run shot by Adam Duvall with nobody out, the second the dagger from Swanson.
Hudson, the Nationals’ closer, has blown two late leads in eight appearances. This meltdown dropped Washington to 8-12, and it came after relievers Dakota Bacus, Tanner Rainey and Will Harris had each worked a scoreless inning to back an improved, uneven effort by starter Aníbal Sánchez.
“That’s one of those games where I’ll look back at tonight and I wouldn’t do anything different,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “Those are the right guys out there. It just didn’t work out.”
“It stinks,” Hudson said. “A three-run lead in the ninth inning should be game over.”
Heading into this one, there were some cosmic echoes of recent history. In May 2019, once the Nationals sunk to 19-31, they inched back during a trip to Atlanta. That two-game series began with Sánchez on the mound. He used the outing to shift a start that included a strained hamstring, erratic command and a 5.10 ERA in nine appearances. Washington won, 14-4. You may remember what happened next.
This past weekend, the Nationals dropped to 7-11 with a loss to the Baltimore Orioles. With a 60-game schedule, each result is equivalent to 2.7 games in a normal year. That means the Nationals were just about 19-31 with two-thirds of the regular season to go. Sánchez would face the Braves on the road sporting a 9.69 ERA coming in. It was hard not to see the parallels, even if it’s also prudent to note some differences.
The 2019 turnaround came after the Nationals got healthy, with Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon and Soto returning from the shelf. Now, Stephen Strasburg, Starlin Castro, Sean Doolittle and Sam Freeman are on the injured list. Each could be out for a while. Howie Kendrick, one of the team’s most productive hitters, is day-to-day with tight hamstrings. That’s how these Nationals enter the playoff race.
“Regardless of what people think, this still is the dog days,” Martinez said before Monday’s loss. “We’re in August, headed to September. We’re in the stretch here where we’re playing for a playoff spot. Every game matters.”
The start was ideal, with Sánchez finishing a quiet first inning on eight pitches. But a familiar issue, his pitch counts spiking early, was on its way. He had a 3-0 lead to protect after Luis García and Eric Thames went deep in the second. García, 20, became the first player born in the 2000s to homer in the major leagues. The ball looped out to right-center, clearing a tall wall, and scored Kurt Suzuki. Then Thames hit his first homer with Washington to snap a weeks-long slump.
Sánchez, though, couldn’t extend the list of firsts against a Braves lineup missing injured mainstays Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies. He has yet to have an efficient night in 2020. He finished his fifth and final inning Monday at 99 pitches. Atlanta connected on 45 of its 54 swings against him and scored three runs on seven hits. But he did hold a slim lead intact, marking marginal progress. The outing shaved his season ERA to 8.50.
“I think I find a little bit of myself at the end of the game,” Sánchez said, nodding to how he limited the Braves in the third and fourth. By then, the Nationals had already chased Braves starter Touki Toussaint. He recorded just nine outs and had allowed a fourth run on a bases-loaded walk before he was lifted. Toussaint’s replacement, left-hander Grant Dayton, soon yielded a solo homer to Asdrúbal Cabrera in the fifth.
Then Bacus, a rookie, worked a scoreless sixth; Rainey worked a scoreless seventh, stranding the bases loaded; and Harris stranded the tying run on base in the eighth. Soto’s homer, a 445-foot shot off lefty Will Smith, gave him seven in only 12 games this season. It also gave Hudson a sizable cushion heading into the ninth.
“They’re really tough,” Hudson said, adding that with a runner on first and Swanson up, he wanted to attack the shortstop to avoid facing Freddie Freeman with the tying run in scoring position. “They don’t hurt themselves too much. They don’t swing at a lot out of the zone.”
Down Doolittle and Freeman, and with Harris still easing back from a groin strain, the bullpen got encouraging returns from its middle relievers Monday. Bacus has set down 12 of 14 batters in the first three appearances of his career. Rainey and Harris created messes but cleaned them up. But Hudson couldn’t do the same.
He hit Nick Markakis on the foot with a slider. The next batter, Duvall, pulled a low-and-outside slider out to left. After yielding a single to Johan Camargo, Hudson retired the next two hitters. Then Swanson went yard, leaving Robles empty-handed, meaning a surge up the standings — if there is to be one this summer — would have to wait.