ATLANTA — A night after not using closer Sean Doolittle in a tie game, then watching it slip away with his best reliever standing in the bullpen, Dave Martinez cut out the middle men.
The Washington Nationals manager asked Doolittle to notch a five-out save, and Doolittle did, and it was the punctuation mark of a 5-3 win over the Atlanta Braves at SunTrust Park. All season, Martinez has watched a rotating cast of relievers — Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Wander Suero, Fernando Rodney — blow leads in the eighth inning. But he wouldn’t this time. Not with Doolittle having rested for the past six days. Not against the division-leading Braves.
“I’ve asked these guys to do things that they normally don’t do,” Martinez said. “And I have to say that I’m very proud of each and every one of them.”
Martinez had needed four full innings from his bullpen once Aníbal Sánchez exited after allowing three runs in five. He first used Suero, for the second straight game, for two scoreless innings and 32 pitches. He used Rodney, despite the 42-year-old tossing a season-high 32 pitches in Friday’s defeat, to get the first out of the eighth. Then, with the tying run on first, Martinez signaled for Doolittle, and the bullpen door swung open.
The 32-year-old finished the inning on eight pitches, skipped off the mound, returned in the ninth and, just like that, had recorded five outs for the third time this season. The Nationals scored an insurance run in the ninth, on Adam Eaton’s third hit, to ease some pressure off Doolittle. The victory brought them within 5½ games of the Braves in the National League East.
“I don’t know if tonight was necessarily a must-win game, but it was definitely a big win for us,” Doolittle said. “It was kind of all hands on deck.”
There aren’t really must-win games in July. Not for the Nationals. They were once in that kind of desperation mode, when they were floundering through April and May, but have since steadied this season with one of the best stretches in club history. They lead the NL wild-card standings. They’re more than okay.
But to seize an opportunity and chase the Braves head-on, this matchup was important for a number of reasons. Washington’s bullpen took another step back Friday when it was hooked for its third loss in the past week. Shaky relief kept the Nationals from a sweep in Philadelphia on Sunday. It kept them from a two-game sweep of the Baltimore Orioles, one of baseball’s worst teams, on Wednesday. Then it buried them against Atlanta on Friday, when Martinez questionably went with Rodney for a second inning, instead of a fresh Doolittle, in the ninth.
And when the page was finally turned and Martinez’s decisions had been burned beneath a microscope, other realities lingered: The Nationals are still without ace Max Scherzer as he recovers from inflammation in the bursa under his right shoulder blade. Joe Ross, jettisoned to the minors in June, will start the series finale. To help their historically bad bullpen — or maybe improve it marginally — Washington plans to recall Michael Blazek from Class AAA Fresno before Sunday’s game. He hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2017.
So with that uncertainty looming, this was a chance to keep pace before the next roster shuffle begins. The Nationals just needed 12 outs from their bullpen — and a bit more offense — to bridge the gap between Sánchez and their 15th win in 20 games.
Martinez first turned to Suero, and the right-hander polished off his second inning by striking out Ozzie Albies. Rodney came next and yielded a single before getting Austin Riley to chase a high 98-mph fastball. Then Martinez made his last walk out of the dugout, with a white sheet in hand, with the simple expectation that Doolittle could finish it from there.
“The last time I came in with Rodney’s runners on base, I let him score,” Doolittle said, thinking back to a July 7 game against the Kansas City Royals. “I really wanted to keep him from scoring. For Fernando. For the team.”
It took 26 pitches for the aggressive plan to work. Doolittle offered a subtle fist pump and went to high-five catcher Kurt Suzuki once the final out was tallied. Martinez calmly watched it reach Victor Robles’s glove and went to give handshakes to his team.
The manager then relaxed in his office after the victory, his hat tilted up off his head, his frame melted into a desk chair. He joked that Doolittle’s vacation was over. He asked whether everyone was surprised to see Rodney enter, about 24 hours after being peppered with the exact same question, and laughed when it was suggested that he was doing the reporters’ jobs.
“I’m asking the questions now,” Martinez said, puffing out his chest, before smiling and leaning back. “This is a two-way street here.”
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