Correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly said that the starting pitchers for the game would be Washington’s Tanner Roark and Atlanta’s Ervin Santana. Doug Fister and Julio Teheran started the game. This version has been corrected.
Craig Kimbrel stood on the base off the mound, his hat askew, his glove on his hip, everything out of order. Nationals Park erupted. Anthony Rendon trotted from first base to second. The 98-mph fastball Kimbrel had thrown — a pitch meant to neatly extend the Atlanta Braves’ superiority over the Washington Nationals — rattled around the visitors bullpen from where he had emerged minutes earlier, an entrance that usually signals the end.
Now, with two outs in the ninth inning Friday night and the most fearsome closer in the game on the mound, Rendon had given the Nationals a fresh beginning. His two-run homer temporarily absolved Stephen Strasburg and sent the game into extra innings. But the Braves simply found a new way to beat the Nationals, more twisted than all the times before.
The Nationals fell into second place and suffered a wrenching, 6-4 loss when the Braves scored two runs off Jerry Blevins in the 13th inning. The question of how the Braves keep beating the Nationals continues to surface. After Friday night, the answer may be any way they want. They chiseled away at Strasburg for six innings. They inserted two relievers to make their big league debut in extra innings. Their untouchable closer collapsed. Their hitters made 18 consecutive outs against the Nationals’ bullpen. And the Braves still beat the Nationals.
“You go from realistically knowing there in the ninth it’s going to be tough to get this one, with the best closer in the game on the mound,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “And you tie it up, it’s a pretty good feeling after that, that we’re going to win it.”
But they could not. As Strasburg allowed six runs in four innings — and seemed to chafe at the Nationals’ plan for him against one of Atlanta’s best — the Nationals dropped to 1-7 against the Braves this season and 7-20 since the start of 2013. They have two games, starting with Doug Fister’s start Saturday night against Julio Teheran, to reclaim first place. For now, the Nationals can only shake their heads.
“It’s just like any other game,” Manager Matt Williams said. “We came back against one of the best closers in the game to tie the game. Had an opportunity, but we lost it. But proud of them for fighting back, staying in it and giving ourselves an opportunity.”
Several Nationals hitters tried something new Friday — unfastening the top button of their jersey without an undershirt to reveal solidarity-stoking forests of chest hair. That didn’t work, either — the Nationals could not manage another hit in four extra innings after Rendon’s home run.
“No big deal,” Rendon said. “We’re losing to them now but the bigger picture is at the end of the season.”
Nationals relievers had retired 18 straight hitters when Blevins headed to the mound for a second inning. He had thrown 18 pitches Thursday night, and in the 12th he needed another 12 to secure a scoreless inning. But Williams had little choice. He had already exhausted four relievers, Aaron Barrett had pitched three consecutive games and Ross Detwiler had thrown 45 pitches Wednesday night.
Blevins “absolutely” felt strong enough to pitch a second inning, he said. “Everybody is tired. We’re in the 13th inning. Our guys have been going the whole time. Their guys have. I got to step up and get the job done. I gave up a couple runs, couldn’t get it done.”
B.J. Upton, the Braves’ coldest hitter, walked to lead off the 13th. “That’s the one that gets me the most,” Blevins said. Blevins had to face Freddie Freeman, who has hit better than .500 against the Nationals this year. He ripped a single to right, putting runners on the corners for Evan Gattis. He pummeled a single to left field, and the Braves had cracked the tie score. They added an insurance run after an intentional walk and a booted double-play ball by Danny Espinosa.
Strasburg struck out eight without a walk, signs of efficiency that showed up only in the box score. The Braves scalded nine hits against him, drove up his pitch count and knocked him out after six innings. The Nationals have won just two of Strasburg’s seven starts against the Braves since the start of the 2013 season. In those, Strasburg pitched a total of three innings — he left one victory with an injury and got ejected from the other.
Strasburg leads the National League with 121 strikeouts, but even as he added eight to that total he struggled to put hitters away. Six of Atlanta’s nine hits off Strasburg came with two strikes, and three of those came after Strasburg had established an 0-2 count. All three of the Braves’ run-scoring hits — Freddie Freeman’s homer, Andrelton Simmons’s single and Jason Heyward’s two-RBI double — came with two strikes.
Heyward’s double opened up a 4-1 Braves’ lead. In three at-bats against Heyward, Strasburg threw 18 fastballs in 19 pitches. Afterward, he seemed to bristle — either at catcher Jose Lobaton, pitching coach Steve McCatty or himself — at the fastball-heavy strategy.
“I guess it was the plan going in,” Strasburg said. “I don’t think it’s the right plan. But that’s what we went with.”
McCatty declined to address on Strasburg’s comment because he had not spoken with him. Before he was apprised of Strasburg’s sentiment, McCatty was asked about pitching Heyward with so many fastballs. He suggested every pitcher can decide what pitch to throw, in every circumstance.
“Every one of these guys has the ability to go out and make pitches of what they want to do,” McCatty said. “Everybody we talk about, we go over their tendencies, what they want to do. When they go out there, they have the ability to make the pitches they want to make. I guess it’s best just to leave it that. I don’t force, nor have I forced, any of these guys. They know how to pitch, and they’re trying to make the pitches they wanted to use.”
The Nationals mustered little offensive momentum against Braves left-hander Mike Minor other than Ian Desmond’s titanic solo homer in the second inning and Denard Span’s RBI triple to score Espinosa in the seventh. They struck out 11 times in seven innings against a starter who in his previous two starts allowed 11 runs and 22 hits over nine innings.
Span’s RBI helped the Nationals inch closer, but Kimbrel’s entrance in the ninth typically spells doom. Pinch hitter Nate McLouth drew a leadoff walk, laying off Kimbrel’s high-and-outside fastballs and refusing swing at a 3-2 pitch out of the zone. Pinch hitter Greg Dobbs popped to left and Span, who came to the plate with a double and a triple already, did the same to right. But McLouth’s walk meant Kimbrel would have to face Rendon, the second-year hitter some think will be the Nationals’ best hitter someday, if he’s not already.
On the 2-1 pitch, Kimbrel reared back and rifled a 98-mph fastball. Rendon matched power with grace, a violent fastball meeting a measured swing. The ball hissed into the night, and the crowd rose. It caromed off the wall separating the bullpen from the red seats and bounced back into the field. Second base umpire Mark Carlson inexplicably ruled the hit a double. Forty-one seconds after Manager Matt Williams requested a review, the crowd exulted all over again. Rendon, officially, had hit the first homer off Kimbrel with a man on base since 2011.
“Just try to see the ball,” Rendon said. “Try not to do too much. He’s going to supply all the power. He throws 100 mph. He throws pretty hard. He’s a phenomenal pitcher. I just tried to barrel it.”
The Nationals had chopped down Kimbrel for only the fourth time in his 23 save chances against them. Now, they tried to win it. Werth ran his count to 3-2, earning his second strike with a vicious hack intended to end the game in one angry, sudden blow. He fouled the next pitch straight back to the netting above the backstop, and then he took ball four, flipping his bat towards the Nationals’ dugout on his trot to first. But LaRoche grounded out to first, and the game churned into extra innings.
Rafael Soriano held the score with a 1-2-3 inning. He fanned Freeman with a 3-2, 92-mph fastball on the ninth pitch of their encounter. In their 37th try, the Nationals had finally sent Freeman down on strikes.
Tyler Clippard had been scored on in eight of his last nine appearances against the Braves, but he pitched a 1-2-3 11th, vanquishing Simmons after a 12-pitch at-bat.
In the 11th, Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez called on Juan Jaime, a former Nationals farmhand with a triple-digit fastball, to make his major league debut. He recorded two quick outs and jumped ahead of Span, 0-2. Span flicked pitches foul and spit on balls out of the zone until he drew a 10-pitch walk. The at-bat brought up Rendon, whom the crowd roared for as he walked to the plate. But he struck out looking at a wicked, 76-mph 2-2 curveball.
Blevins tossed another clean inning in the 12th, which he closed by deflecting Ramiro Pena’s smash off his right heel. The ball rolled straight to LaRoche at first base, and Pena became the 18th consecutive hitter the Nationals’ bullpen had retired.
Blevins considered the break an omen, a sign the Nationals would win and finally beat the Braves. But it ended with another loss, another quiet clubhouse, another round of trying to figure out how to beat the Braves.
More on the Nationals:
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Nationals Journal: Braves’ pitching is dominating matchup
Nationals Journal: Harper, Ramos on track for rehab assignments
Fancy Stats: Why the Nationals can’t beat the Braves
Nationals Journal: Washington signs 24 draft picks