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Nationals’ rally falls short in 5-4 loss to Braves in extra innings

Closer Sean Doolittle couldn’t believe he gave up a game-winning solo home run to Josh Donaldson in the 10th inning.
Closer Sean Doolittle couldn’t believe he gave up a game-winning solo home run to Josh Donaldson in the 10th inning. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Wednesday afternoon at Nationals Park wasn’t about what happened in the game until the Washington Nationals made it so. Most of the game slid by distractedly under cloudy skies while the focus intensified on the clock ticking down to the 4 p.m. trade deadline. But after the Nationals’ front office acquired three relievers in a flurry of moves, the team on the field cobbled together a two-run, ninth-inning rally against the Atlanta Braves to force extras.

But the same bullpen that was bolstered by trades during the game cost the Nationals on the field in the 10th inning of a 5-4 loss. Washington’s most trusted reliever all season, closer Sean Doolittle, allowed a decisive home run to Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson and the offense couldn’t capitalize on a two-on, one-out rally in the bottom of the inning.

Box score: Braves 5, Nationals 4

“Unfortunately, that’s a pitch I live and die with. It’s a pitch that I’ve had success with against him this year,” Doolittle said of the 93-mph four-seam fastball up and away. “[Donaldson] made an adjustment. With two strikes, [I] feel good about it. Just got beat. It stinks.”

The game had parallels to the teams’ trade-deadline chess match: The Braves started hot, building an early 4-1 lead after acquiring the first reliever on Tuesday night. The Nationals roared back, trading for a trio of arms late and tying the game in the ninth. The Braves got the last word with Donaldson’s home run and two more bullpen acquisitions at the deadline in veteran right-handers Mark Melancon and Shane Greene, the latter of whom was rumored to be a target of the Nationals.

In his fourth start against Atlanta this season, starter Aníbal Sánchez tried to show the Braves a different look. He throws inside often, but he worked outside and avoided his front-door cutter.

“I’m looking for groundball, weak contact,” he said, though he didn’t get much of it.

A home run in the second, back-to-back doubles in the third and three straight singles in the fourth — including one from the opposing starter, Mike Soroka — tagged Sánchez with three runs. After giving up a pair of doubles in the sixth, the veteran right-hander departed with his worst line since returning from the injured list in late May: Five-plus innings, one walk, six strikeouts and 10 hits (six of which were extra bases) for four runs.

The stumble from one of the Nationals’ three trusted, healthy starters highlighted both the need for a consistent fifth starter and bullpen help, a fact magnified by the division leader jumping ahead in the three-way National League East arms race. The Braves acquired right-handed reliever Chris Martin on Tuesday for a young, left-handed starting prospect from their pitching-rich system.

In the sixth, with pinch hitter Howie Kendrick at the plate to lead off, the Nationals traded a Class A starter for Toronto Blue Jays right-handed reliever Daniel Hudson, a rental with a 3.00 ERA who is averaging nine strikeouts per nine innings.

Kendrick walked. The previous time the Nationals faced Soroka, in Atlanta, they had battered him on their third trip through the order. Trea Turner, facing Soroka for the third time Wednesday, smacked a ball into the left-center field gap. With no outs and the heart of the order due up, the breakthrough the Nationals waited for all afternoon seemed imminent.

But as Kendrick dug around second, he saw third base coach Bob Henley pinwheeling him home. Kendrick sprinted for the plate, but the relay throw beat him by about five feet. Turner never advanced past second.

“[Henley] is a very aggressive third base coach and, you know what, I’m not going to fault [him],” Manager Dave Martinez said. “Whatever people say, he’s really good at what he does. Super good. He makes more right decisions than he does wrong, and I’m not saying that this was a wrong one. He saw what he saw and sent Howie. I never question him on anytime he sends anybody.”

When the Nationals acquired their second reliever of the day, left-hander Roenis Elías from the Seattle Mariners, they were in the midst of going down in order in the seventh.

In the eighth, Matt Adams pinch-hit. The first baseman had missed two games after an 89-mph slider hit his right foot on Sunday against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Adams looked fine. He clobbered a home run into the right field seats. Minutes later, the Nationals acquired another Seattle reliever, right-hander Hunter Strickland, in a separate deal.

In the ninth, dealmaking done, the Nationals loaded the bases trailing by one with no outs. Gerardo Parra grounded into a double play but drove in the tying run. With two outs and the winning run 90 feet away, the Nationals still had a chance. Brian Dozier struck out to send the game to extras.

“We just couldn’t get that one big hit today,” Martinez said, looking disappointed. “But we’ve still got plenty of games left with them.”

In the 10th, Doolittle watched Donaldson’s home run sail over the center field fence and put both arms over his head. He couldn’t believe it. He later left the mound, inning over, with his hat askew, as if it were a popped lid letting off steam.

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