The Nationals lost their starting pitcher before the fourth inning on Sunday due to health concerns for the second consecutive game.
Nationals starter Joe Ross left Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Braves after his fastball velocity, usually in the low 90s, had been noticeably lower than normal all game — dipping into the mid 80s.
“He had some tricep tenderness,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said after the game. “He’s taking an MRI right now. We don’t know the results yet.”
But unlike Saturday, when Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg exited after just three innings in a one-sided loss, Washington’s offense came alive on Sunday, and the bullpen did just about enough to get the Nationals a 10-5 win over the Braves heading into the All-Star break.
Ross was pulled after Braves outfielder Nick Markakis’s fly out to start the fourth. Baker met Ross at the mound and Ross walked-off with only 31/3 innings under his belt, leaving Baker to call in left-hander Matt Grace from the bullpen.
“He came out to the first hitter the [fourth] inning, and he just didn’t have the life on it that he had before in the game,” Nationals catcher Matt Wieters said. “So I just wanted to go out there and make sure we don’t do any damage to something that hopefully we can get fixed quick and get him back out there.”
The game started promisingly for the Nationals. After a scoreless top of the first, the Nationals quickly loaded the bases in the bottom half of the inning with no outs against Braves starter Sean Newcomb, courtesy of two walks and a Bryce Harper single.
Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman’s broken-bat sacrifice fly scored outfielder Brian Goodwin to give Washington the lead, Nationals shortstop Wilmer Difo and Harper advancing to second and third. Second baseman Daniel Murphy then struck out, but third baseman Anthony Rendon roped a two-out, two-run double into the left-center field gap to increase the early lead 3-0.
“Anthony’s our foundation man. He’s a clutch man,” Baker said. “You need a base hit to right, you need a homer, you need an RBI, whatever that you need, Anthony’s usually the guy that comes through.”
Atlanta erased Washington’s advantage in the top of the third, however, as Ross could not escape trouble of his own making.
After back-to-back walks with two outs, Braves third baseman Freddie Freeman, hitting .348, lifted a three-run homer to left-center, tying the game and punishing Ross for not getting the third out earlier in the inning.
The Nationals retook the lead in the bottom of the fourth in similar fashion to their three-run first inning. Rendon and Matt Wieters both walked to start the inning, then Chris Heisey banged a double off the left field wall to score Rendon.
“Up and down the lineup, we pick each other up,” Zimmerman said after the game. “It’s a fun lineup to be a part of.”
The Nationals never lost the leading once they went up 4-3 and Braves starter Sean Newcomb exited the game. Washington relied on timely hitting — adding two more runs in the fifth, one in the seventh and three in the eighth — to keep Atlanta from closing any gap.
Runners in scoring position has been a strength for the Nationals all season.
“I think it’s just increase the focus even more,” Wieters said. “Runs are hard to come by, so anytime you do get that situation where you can get a run no matter how it is, that’s what you’re kind of focusing on.”
The Nationals’ bullpen, much-maligned so far this season, showed some mental toughness as well. While Grace gave up two runs in the sixth, four other relievers combined to hold Atlanta scoreless and finish off the win.
“I know everyone’s talking about the bullpen right now, but what is there other to do than to just continue to make pitches and continue to scrap and get after it,” Grace said. “You can look at it two ways: you either keep fighting, keep trusting the process or you don’t so there’s nothing else more to do about it.”
With the victory, Washington salvaged a series split with Atlanta, maintaining their 9.5 game lead atop the National League East they had when the series started. Baker complimented his team’s first half performance, but insisted there’s still work to be done heading into the second half.
“Everybody’s chipped in, so I know it’s corny, but it’s a real team effort, it really was,” he said. “We don’t want to just continue our lead, we want to pad the lead.”
• Josh Luckenbaugh can be reached at email@example.com.
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