ATLANTA — What the Washington Nationals needed from right-hander Reynaldo Lopez Thursday night was a lot to ask of someone making his fourth major league start.
What they needed after their bullpen covered nearly twice as many innings as their starters over the past three days was for their rookie to go six innings — seven to be safe — and leapfrog their taxed middle relievers in favor of their more rested late-inning men.
What they hoped was that Lopez might do all that and maintain a lead in the process, though after a cross-country flight and lengthy rain delay, it seemed unfair to expect all of that.
What they got was dominance, the second-most strikeouts a Nationals rookie has ever recorded, the best seven innings anyone in their rotation has thrown since the last time Lopez pitched. What they got — following Lopez’s seven innings of four-hit ball — was an 8-2 win.
“The games when I was in Colorado, I was seeing what was going on,” Lopez said through team translator Octavio Martinez. “I was telling myself that I was going to come out here and try to throw seven or eight innings to get the guys a break.”
Before Lopez even took the mound, Braves left fielder Matt Kemp provided a generous welcome for Nationals, who arrived in Atlanta around midnight Wednesday. Trea Turner had singled and stolen second, his 13th steal in 14 tries. Bryce Harper had walked, and after another walk and hit Thursday has now reached safely in 14 of 23 plate appearances since returning from a neck injury.
Anthony Rendon hit a fly ball to left that should have been the third out. Kemp drifted over, and dropped it. Turner and Harper scored, and the Nationals’ rookie took the mound with a lead.
Lopez then gave the Nationals every reason to believe he would preserve it. Repeating his distinct delivery without variation, he turned, tilted, and spotted dart after dart to the corners of the strike zone — most notably the outside part of the plate , which he hit with a high-90s fastball seemingly at will. The first batter he faced grounded out to short. The second singled. Eight of the next nine struck out.
“He was dynamite,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said.
Lopez worked quickly, as if someone hit fast forward on a VCR, though that reference is likely outdated for the 22-year-old. Before the game, he was lounging on the couch, laughing at something on his iPhone, showing his countryman Pedro Severino, who laughed along with him. A few hours later — after a 76-minute rain delay following a storm that hit Turner Field just before the Nationals could begin batting practice — Lopez was overpowering the Braves with that high-90s fastball and a well-commanded curve.
“He just executes every pitch,” Severino said. “Every time when he do the same thing like that, executes every pitch, he do a great job.”
Baker paired Lopez with catcher Severino because they worked well together in Lopez’s last outing, the best of his brief career. He had allowed one run in seven innings and struck out two against the Braves five days ago. This time, so in sync with Severino he never seemed to break his rhythm, he blew them away: Turn, tilt, woosh — whiff.
“I’ve had several starts with him down in the lower levels,” Lopez said through Martinez. “He knows me very well. He knows what pitches I like to throw in certain counts, so I don’t have to shake him off very much.”
Kemp got one of those runs back in the fourth when he sliced a double that landed just inside the right field line. He moved to third on a passed ball by Severino, which meant that when he scored on a sacrifice fly by Nick Markakis a batter later, the run was unearned.
Lopez allowed a second run when Freddie Freeman doubled and he threw a wild pitch to allow him to move to third and score on an out in the sixth. But then Lopez struck out Markakis staring at a curveball to end the sixth, his 11th strikeout of the game, tied with Joe Ross and John Lannan for second-most ever by a Nationals rookie.
“I had a lot more confidence this outing,” Lopez said. “At the beginning of the game, I just felt like I was a caged animal. I just wanted to get out there and be very aggressive.”
An inning later, Lopez showed the first signs of fraying when he allowed a leadoff single to Tyler Flowers and walked pinch hitter Gordon Beckham with two outs and the tying run in scoring position. Then he threw three straight strikes to Ender Inciarte, the first two on the black on the inside corner according to home plate umpire Tom Hallion. Inciarte grounded the third — Lopez’s 101st pitch of the night — to second base to end the inning. Lopez left with a one-run lead.
The Nationals used three walks, a hit by pitch, passed ball and an error in the top of the eighth to score five runs and build that lead to six. Shawn Kelley threw a scoreless eighth and Mark Melancon threw the ninth.
By then, the Braves had given the Nationals the insurance runs they needed to pull even on this three-city road trip — two wins and two losses.
By then, Lopez had given the Nationals the pitching performance they needed to reset their bullpen. He has allowed two earned runs in 14 innings, and given the Nationals the fifth starter they will need down the stretch, too.