Over the next three weeks, three outfielders, each representing a distinct period of Washington Nationals baseball, will face regular evaluation and scrutiny until the playoffs for the National League East champions.
Bryce Harper, the present, is on the disabled list with a bone bruise in his left leg, though he has made considerable progress in recent days and the club is optimistic he will return for the postseason. Jayson Werth, 38 and coming off injury, is out to rediscover his mojo. Victor Robles, the future, is aiming to prove his five-tool skill set belongs on the team’s playoff roster.
While the franchise’s present linchpin watched, Werth and Robles shared the diamond Thursday night at Nationals Park. Werth was in left field for career start No. 1,419. Robles, 20, was in right field for his second career start. The alignment of eras sparked a 5-2 win over the Atlanta Braves that allowed Washington to avoid a three-game series sweep.
Making his second start after missing five games with a sore shoulder, Werth generated the game’s first run with an RBI single on a 98-mph fastball from Braves right-hander Mike Foltynewicz in the first inning. He did it in typical Werth fashion — on the seventh pitch of the at-bat with the count saturated. And he did it again in the seventh inning, singling to center field on the 10th pitch of his at-bat against left-hander Ian Krol. Werth finished the night with the two singles and two drives to the warning track. He saw 24 pitches. It was peak Werth.
“The big thing right now is timing and pitch selection, and that’s been good,” Werth said. “There are a lot of positives to take from the last two days. I need to get into playing shape, get my legs going and just get rolling. But there’s time, so it’s good.”
Notably, Werth batted second without Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman in the lineup. That was the spot in which he was batting when he fractured his left foot in early June. It suits him. He’s an expert at working pitchers, which requires patience, a necessary quality when hitting behind prolific base burglar Trea Turner. But Werth was placed further down in the lineup when he returned in late August. In his nine games since coming off the DL, Werth batted second just once. That appears to be a temporary measure.
“I got him batting seventh in the beginning because I don’t want to tear up my whole lineup if I got to take him out of the game,” Manager Dusty Baker said. “If I got to double switch, you usually do it at the bottom of your lineup. And so eventually I’d like Jayson to hit second again.”
Three innings after Werth, who is on the final year of a seven-year contract, gave Washington the lead, Robles, the youngest player to appear in a major league game this season, smashed a slider to right-center field reminiscent of his first career hit Sunday. In the first version, Robles clubbed a curveball off the wall in right-center field and slid feet-first safely into third base — but overslid the bag and was tagged out. He settled for an RBI double.
On Thursday, there wasn’t a throw to third base, and Robles slid in safely for a triple as Adam Lind scored to put Washington ahead 2-0. According to MLB.com, his 11.12-second sprint from home plate to third base was the fastest of any National since the league started tracking such things in 2015 — just faster than Turner’s best.
“I heard Harper joking with Turner about it,” said Robles, Washington’s top prospect. “And he told him, ‘Hey, don’t worry. You’re still faster than him.’ ”
Robles added an infield single in the sixth inning, which was possible only because third baseman Johan Camargo, recognizing Robles’s elite speed, rushed his throw to first. It sailed. Robles and Lind, who singled twice, advanced to second and third. Camargo was charged with the error, and Robles had his third career hit.
“You got to like what you see,” Baker said. “You see why everybody wanted to trade for him and see why we didn’t give him up and include him in any of those trades. He can be an impact player.”
Robles and Lind ended up scoring on Adrian Sanchez’s double down the left field line, which added on to Sanchez’s impressive résumé with runners in scoring position. Since joining the Nationals (89-57), Sanchez, 27, who spent more than a decade in the minors before his first call-up in July, is 8 for 13 with three doubles and 10 RBI with runners in scoring position.
The clutch hitting afforded Tanner Roark (13-9) a three-run cushion. The right-hander was at his best early, holding the Braves (66-79) to one walk through 4 2/3 innings until Camargo singled for Atlanta’s first hit. Roark then stumbled in the sixth. After pinch-hitter Rio Ruiz singled, Ozzie Albies, the second-youngest player in baseball behind Robles, smacked a two-run blast. It was the 20-year-old Albies’s fourth home run in 41 career games.
That was all the Braves produced against Roark, who was replaced after six innings and 108 pitches. The two-seamer specialist allowed four hits, walked one and struck out seven before passing the baton to Washington’s bullpen. In seven starts since the beginning of August, Roark has posted a 3.24 ERA and 50 strikeouts to 14 walks. He had a 4.93 ERA in his first 21 outings.
“I learned from early on in the year,” Roark said. “Just keep going at it, keep grinding, keep working hard, it’ll turn around. I’m a firm believer in that.”
Matt Albers, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle then sealed a victory ignited by the faces of the past and future. One was drafted in the first round out of an Illinois high school on June 2, 1997. The other was born in the Dominican Republic 15 days earlier. Both have their sights set on Washington’s first World Series title since 1924.