ATLANTA — The Washington Nationals have their flaws. That is undeniable. The most obvious is the bullpen, though the starting rotation, defense and bench have shown cracks lately. But a weekend trip to suburban Cobb County was supposed to reassure them that their problems could be worse, that they were first-place problems.
All the Nationals had to do was look across SunTrust Park to the home club’s dugout during their 7-4 loss Friday night. Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman was sitting in there, wearing a hoodie with his left wrist in a green cast, unable to pulverize Washington pitching again. The noted Nationals nemesis became the latest star lost to a significant injury among Washington’s closest competitors in the NL East when he fractured the wrist this week, joining the New York Mets’ triumvirate of Noah Syndergaard, Yoenis Cespedes and Jeurys Familia.
Yet the Nationals’ glaring issue, that beleaguered bullpen, took center stage again in their third straight loss. This time, Enny Romero was tasked with keeping the score tied at 4 in the eighth inning and failed miserably. The implosion began when Romero issued Brandon Phillips a one-out walk. Phillips then stole second and scored when Nick Markakis, a left-handed hitter, slotted a single through the right side off the left-hander. Two batters later, Kurt Suzuki demolished a cutter to the seats beyond the wall in left field, which provided insurance for the Braves (17-22) to remain in second place, seven games behind Washington (25-16).
“The key was walking Brandon Phillips late,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said of Romero, who declined to speak to the media. “Then Markakis, who usually doesn’t hit lefties as well. But if you can’t get your secondary pitches over, then they’re sitting on fastballs. That was kind of the ballgame.”
The Nationals needed Gio Gonzalez to pitch deep into the game. Their bullpen, unreliable at full strength, was exhausted after the unexpected workload required when they lost two of three at Pittsburgh over the previous three days. But Gonzalez didn’t deliver. He needed 116 pitches to last just 5⅔ innings. He yielded four runs, allowed nine hits and walked three, marking a seventh straight outing he has finished with at least that number. The performance put the bullpen in the exact treacherous spot the Nationals were yearning to avoid.
“I was hoping he’d go deeper in the game,” Baker said. “But that’s what happens when you throw a lot of pitches.”
Gonzalez allowed two singles in a 21-pitch first inning but no runs. The Braves, however, got on the board first when Dansby Swanson clubbed a two-run home run in the second inning. Matt Kemp added a solo homer in the third.
The Nationals responded to each home run immediately, first with three runs in the third inning and another in the fourth off knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. The three-run outburst was made possible because Jace Peterson, Freeman’s replacement, couldn’t stop a scorched groundball to his left off Bryce Harper’s bat. The ball went down the right field line, and two runs scored as Harper scampered to third on the error.
Daniel Murphy put the Nationals back on top with a solo home run — his second homer in as many days — in the fourth inning. Washington appeared on the verge of another surge in the fifth after Anthony Rendon worked a 14-pitch walk to load the bases with two outs. But Matt Wieters popped out on Dickey’s 113th pitch to end the inning.
“We got to score more runs,” Baker said. “Each of the last three games we lost, they’re hitting us like we should be hitting them. Especially some guys hitting the ball on us out of the ballpark that are hot. But ordinarily they don’t hit the ball out of the ballpark the way that they have. So it’s a bad series of events.”
The Braves didn’t waste their opportunity in the ensuing half inning against Gonzalez. With two on and one out, Suzuki smashed a line drive to the right-center field gap for an RBI double to tie the game. That prompted a mound visit from pitching coach Mike Maddux. Gonzalez then escaped the jam with consecutive strikeouts. He lasted two more outs — Michael A. Taylor, who had two hits to extend his hitting to seven games, threw Swanson out at the plate for the second of them — before Matt Grace relieved him with a runner on second.
“It was a battle,” Gonzalez said.
The Nationals intentionally walked Phillips before Grace threw a pitch to set up a force play at the three bases, but Atlanta disrupted that strategy by executing a double steal. Grace, however, induced a groundout from Markakis to conclude the frame.
Baker then had to figure out how to deploy his limited bullpen options. Blake Treinen wasn’t available because he appeared in each of the three games in Pittsburgh, and Baker wanted to avoid Matt Albers because he made four appearances over the previous four days. That left Baker with Shawn Kelley, Oliver Perez, Koda Glover and Romero, though Baker said he planned on holding Glover for a save situation.
So Baker chose Kelley for the seventh inning — the earliest he has entered a game this season — after tossing 20 pitches in a scoreless inning Thursday, and Kelley wasn’t sharp. The right-hander surrendered a leadoff single and later consecutive two-out walks to load the bases. But Kelley got pinch-hitter Rio Ruiz to strike out on three pitches to maneuver out of the predicament.
But the Braves, as many opponents have, eventually broke through against Washington’s bullpen with the middle of their order, even without their all-star first baseman in it. It was Atlanta’s second game without Freeman, who was peaking in his age-27 season with the third-highest WAR in baseball, according to FanGraphs, before he was hit by a pitch Wednesday. He was ruled out for approximately 10 weeks Thursday. Hours later, Atlanta signed James Loney. The light-hitting Loney, who will join the Braves after a minor league stint, was a free agent for a reason. A gaping hole will remain.
The Braves’ realistic goal was to compete as they endure a rebuild, perhaps to reach .500. The chances of that took a thumping blow with one pitch this week. They are, simply, a worse team without Freeman, which should make the Nationals’ task of besting their hapless divisional competition, which boasted four of baseball’s six worst records entering Friday, that much easier.
This weekend’s shorthanded opponent and a peek at the standings indicate the NL East is the Nationals’ to lose. But Friday served as a convenient reminder that they will need to remedy their bullpen to avoid any pitfalls and make noise come October.
“We need some help,” Baker said. “Period.”