ATLANTA — Shawn Kelley emerged from the visitors’ bullpen at SunTrust Park at 10:03 p.m. Thursday as the gigantic video board in center field showed a montage of Atlanta Braves highlights. Those in attendance tomahawk-chopped in unison.
It was the middle of the ninth inning of Washington’s 3-2 win and the start of a new era for the Nationals, one they didn’t intend to launch in the season’s 15th game. But Blake Treinen’s poor performance in his bid to be closer forced the Nationals to make a change at the back end of the bullpen. So Kelley now has the job when his right arm, which has needed Tommy John surgery twice, allows it. Koda Glover fills the role when it doesn’t.
And Kelley completed the task Thursday, saving Stephen Strasburg’s second victory, though not without some drama. After retiring the first two batters he faced, Kelley allowed a single to Kurt Suzuki and refused to give in to Tyler Flowers, who walked to bring up leadoff hitter Ender Inciarte. Kelley fell behind 1-0, but got Inciarte to fly out to center field and escaped for his second save of the season, and first as Washington’s official closer, to complete a three-game sweep for the Nationals (10-5).
“It worked out in the grand scheme of things,” Kelley said. “Probably made some people nervous and it didn’t look attractive, but that was my plan to Flowers was to put him away no matter what the count was with sliders and he took so it’s fine. Onto the next one.”
Kelley’s performance completed a two-inning scoreless effort from the Nationals’ bullpen, seemingly a small feat yet a noteworthy step in the right direction for a battered group of relievers that began the night with the third-worst bullpen ERA in the majors.
Oliver Perez hadn’t pitched since a 17-3 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies on April 8, but he was Manager Dusty Baker’s choice to relieve Strasburg in the eighth inning and face Freddie Freeman, the Nationals-crushing first baseman who has spent the first few weeks of the season atop the leader board in nearly every offensive category across baseball.
“We were joking with him when they called his name,” Kelley said. “We said, ‘Welcome back to the team.’ ”
Perez got Freeman, who finished 0 for 4, to fly out to left field on his second pitch. With that, his job was complete. Baker inserted Glover, who recorded the next two outs without a blip.
“That was real big,” Baker said.
The bullpen preserved another stellar outing from Strasburg, who allowed two runs on six hits over seven innings on 103 pitches for his 71st career victory, the most in Nationals history, with the help from a series of strong defensive plays behind him. He walked two and collected 10 strikeouts, a few on devastating change-ups, for his 30th career double-digit strikeout performance. He’s logged exactly seven innings in each of his four starts.
A few hours before first pitch, second baseman Daniel Murphy, who was penciled in the Nationals’ lineup batting fourth at second base, informed Baker that tightness in his right leg was bothering him. He asked for the day off. Baker, who was already without Jayson Werth because of a minor groin injury, gave it to him and adjusted his batting order. Ryan Zimmerman took Murphy’s spot in the lineup, moving up from fifth to fourth, and continued his best April in almost a decade.
The first baseman doubled and scored in the second inning, then clubbed a two-run home run in the sixth off Braves knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. The blow, his fifth, stood as the difference in the game and was his second homer in as many nights, following his grand slam Wednesday. It also was the 220th of his career, tying him with Gary Carter for the third most in franchise history (Montreal Expos included).
Zimmerman hadn’t compiled five home runs in April since 2009, the only all-star season of his major league career, and his team still has 10 games left on this month’s schedule.
Strasburg breezed through the first inning, striking out Inciarte, Freeman and Matt Kemp swinging. The only blip was Adonis Garcia’s chopper to third baseman Anthony Rendon for an infield single. He needed 16 pitches. Thirteen were strikes.
His second inning wasn’t as painless. Strasburg loaded the bases loaded with no outs but limited the damage to just one run thanks to his defense. He struck out Suzuki. Then shortstop Wilmer Difo made a slick charging play on Dickey’s slow groundball to retire the pitcher for the second out as the Braves’ first run scored to tie the game. Then Inciarte smoked a sinking line drive to right field that Bryce Harper nabbed down by his shoelaces to conclude the inning.
“Stuff felt like I was locked in,” Strasburg said. “So that second inning was huge to squeeze out of there giving up only one run so that was the ballgame right there.”
The Braves added a second run in the fourth inning when Suzuki’s sacrifice fly scored Brandon Phillips, who doubled and advanced to third base on Jace Peterson’s single. The sequence gave Atlanta a 2-1 lead.
It was short-lived because Zimmerman pulverized his two-run home over the wall in left-center field after Harper extended the inning by taking a two-out walk on a borderline pitch. Dickey, who allowed three runs over seven innings, had retired 14 of the previous 15 batters.
The Braves threatened to tie it in the sixth inning after Nick Markakis walked with one out, but Michael A. Taylor gambled to make a diving catch on a line drive from Phillips. A misread and Phillips could have been looking at a triple.
“Michael made the play of the game,” Baker said.
From there, Strasburg got the third out, put up another zero in the seventh and left it in the hands of Washington’s reshuffled bullpen for the final six outs.