The Washington Nationals are among the hottest teams in baseball — winners of four straight and nine of their past 11 — despite a bullpen that showed again Wednesday that it remains a real threat to their season.
The 6-4 win over the Chicago White Sox came courtesy of Trea Turner’s walk-off homer in the ninth, a two-run blow only necessary because Manager Dave Martinez entrusted his bullpen with a fragile lead and asked for 11 outs. Again, it couldn’t deliver.
“Three weeks ago, we probably lose that game,” Martinez said. “[The difference now is] I really believe these guys have confidence.”
Turner’s patience at the plate helped gloss over the continued bullpen exasperation. The Nationals shortstop knew Chicago closer Alex Colome threw “so many” sliders, but Colome was struggling to command the pitch. He walked the previous hitter on four pitches and missed with a slider again on his first pitch to Turner. So Turner expected more fastballs. On 3-2, Turner saw the fourth four-seamer of the at-bat drift middle-in at the numbers.
“It’s just a matter of seeing more pitches, not anything more than that,” Turner said. He emphasized this stretch, four series won in a row, with seemingly each victory sparked by a different part of the team, signaled a bigger shift.
“We’ve played good baseball all year. We’ve just been on the losing side because of something stupid each game. Stupid mistakes are starting to go away, and we’re starting to play consistent and pitch when we need it, hit when we need it. We bailed our pitchers out today, but last week, they bailed us out. That’s what good teams do.”
The bullpen trouble traced back to the sixth inning, when Martinez decided to lift Aníbal Sánchez. The starter was at 80 pitches in his second appearance off the injured list, the maximum the team wanted him to throw, but he was cruising. After escaping a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the second, he retired 10 of the next 11. But concern nagged.
Like many pitchers, the numbers do not favor Sánchez on his third trip through the batting order. So when, in his third at-bat, Chicago’s Yoan Moncada clobbered a four-seamer beyond the fence in left-center to trim Washington’s lead to 2-1, previous success didn’t matter to Martinez. Nor did it matter that his starter might be peeved at the quick hook.
Martinez understood he couldn’t let the heart of the White Sox order face his starter for a third time.
Enter Tanner Rainey, the 26-year-old who had thrown 16 pitches 16 hours earlier but offered one of the few seemingly trustworthy options in relief. The hard-throwing right-hander allowed a single but pitched around it. Nine outs to go.
Kyle Barraclough came on for the seventh, buoyed after the Nats padded the lead to 4-1 thanks to a sacrifice fly and a dropped pop-up by shortstop Tim Anderson. Barraclough, at the time, looked like he didn’t need it, inducing a ground out, line out and strikeout. Six outs to go.
Martinez stuck with Barraclough to start the eighth. The reliever hadn’t pitched in seven days, and, though Barraclough had gotten up in the bullpen plenty during that span, the manager wanted him to throw two innings. The right-hander sandwiched a single with a strikeout and line out and seemed poised to escape the inning, four outs to go and all that. But no.
Chicago slugger Jose Abreu’s crushed a low curveball, slicing the Nationals’ lead to 4-3 and summoning Martinez.
“We need him,” Martinez said of Barraclough. “Bottom line is he’s going to have to pitch. He’s going to have to figure it out. We talked about this earlier today, about execution and making your pitches. It was one of those things where he was doing well and didn’t make his pitch.”
Martinez turned to Wander Suero, who allowed the game-tying home run on the next pitch.
“We’re not going to win with three guys in the bullpen, I can tell you that,” Martinez said. “I didn’t want to use Suero today. Now he’s probably going to be down for two days.”
It was easy, in that moment, to think back to the fourth, when Juan Soto yo-yoed off second base as he struggled to decide whether White Sox left fielder Eloy Jimenez would catch a lazy flyball. Jimenez slid but didn’t catch it, and coaches later told Soto he never should have retreated. In the moment, the young outfielder reversed course and scrambled to third but couldn’t make it any further.
Bases loaded, no outs, it felt as if they could break the game open and give themselves low-leverage later innings on a humid Wednesday afternoon with a cross-country flight awaiting. They couldn’t. Catcher Kurt Suzuki sacrificed in Soto, but the Nationals managed nothing more.
Later, all was forgiven for at least a moment as celebrating teammates doused Turner with water. The vibe in the clubhouse lightened as the bass thumped, the bags piled up and the players donned Hawaiian shirts. Soto praised his teammates for doing what this team has needed all season and stepping up in a big moment.
“It’s about time,” Soto said. “It’s our time now.”