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For six months and a couple of extra days, Nats fans waited.
Then in a span of a little over 24 hours, they went from famine to feast, as the Nationals played three games, showing both the potential - and challenges - they'll have to deal with this season.
The good: The Nats took the season opener on a walk-off base hit by Juan Soto.
The bad: They dropped both games of a doubleheader on Wednesday.
Max Scherzer was not at his best on Tuesday. He surrendered four solo home runs in his first three innings, including two to Ronald Acuña Jr. Thankfully, the Nats’ bats picked up his slack. Recently signed catcher Jonathan Lucroy laced a two-run double down the third base line in the second inning, and Trea Turner crushed a ball over the left-center field fence in the bottom of the fourth to tie the game.
Despite his early struggles, Scherzer managed to get through six innings while limiting the damage to four runs and striking out nine batters. That kept Washington in the game, and the bullpen fared better.
The Braves added a run on an Acuña groundout in the seventh, with Kyle Finnegan on the mound. But Andrew Stevenson responded with a bases-loaded RBI single the next inning.
After a cleaning top of the ninth from Daniel Hudson, Victor Robles and Trea Turner battled their way on base against Atlanta closer Will Smith. Then on a 3-0 count, Soto laced a 115-mile per hour line drive into center field past Christian Pache, scoring Robles and giving the Nationals a 6-5 come-from-behind victory.
The midday opener was much the opposite from the previous day’s game. After trotting out the same lineup as the day before, the Nationals scored four runs in the first inning off Max Fried (including another home run from Turner), but couldn’t seal the deal.
With Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester both sidelined due to COVID-19 protocols, Erick Fedde drew the start for Washington. It wasn’t one of his best, as he allowed six runs in fewer than two official innings. Even in spite of the run support he got, he left the game with his team trailing 6-4.
Turner doubled in the bottom of the second and eventually scored on a line drive by Starlin Castro, cutting the deficit to one run. But then things got quiet on both sides.
Two singles and consecutive wild pitches by Wander Suero in the seventh inning – the final frame of doubleheaders this season – gave the Braves an add-on run, which proved to be too much for the Nationals to make up. Castro drove in Soto, who had reached on a walk to lead off the inning. But after a walk to Luis Garcia, Will Smith grounded Stevenson into a game-ending double play. With that, the Braves notched their first win of 2021.
This was the ultimate battle of ace pitchers, except one of them – Huascar Ynoa – was a rather unknown, nondescript back-of-the-rotation arm. While neither of them surrendered a run or factored into the decision, the 22-year-old won.
Stephen Strasburg allowed only one hit, walked two Braves, and struck out eight over six pristine innings. Unfortunately for him, the one inning he didn’t pitch was the difference.
After a two-out base hit by Dansby Swanson off Tanner Rainey, Pablo Sandoval stepped to the plate as a pinch hitter. He worked the count full, and then slugged a ball to straightaway centerfield that not even Robles could catch.
Sean Newcomb shut the door for the Braves, striking out Stevenson, Hernan Perez and Ryan Zimmerman, sealing a 2-0 win for Atlanta.
Nobody likes to lose more games than they win, but there were positive developments. Perhaps the most encouraging sign – aside from Strasburg’s elite performance – is Robles getting himself on base in seven of his 12 plate appearances. Zimmerman batted nearly .500 in the series, and Castro went 4-for-11 and didn’t commit an error at third base – a fairly new position to him.
Soto, Stevenson and Lucroy also each had positive moments at the plate, and Turner’s five-tool talent was on full display throughout the series.
Aside from Strasburg, the starting pitchers clearly struggled, as did Rainey – one of Washington’s most important relievers. It’s too soon to say whether that – combined with the success other bullpen arms had – will affect his role going forward, but it could to some degree.
The Nationals will get a day off tomorrow, as they travel out west to Los Angeles. Then they’ll start a three-game set against the Dodgers on Friday with Joe Ross starting the opening game against Walker Buehler, and first pitch coming at 4:10 ET. Washington’s starters for the following two games are currently unknown, while Julio Urias is scheduled to start Game Two for the Dodgers.
Speaking of starters, manager Dave Martinez has indicated that some of the Nationals’ key players who are sidelined due to COVID protocols may be nearing their returns. There’s a chance that some of them may even become available for the upcoming series.
Until then, the Nats find themselves at 1-2 on the season, with a chance to reset themselves mentally and health-wise prior to taking on one of the best teams in baseball.