Early on, it appeared the Braves were headed for their first win of the season Tuesday. The game quickly morphed into a tight affair that ended with Juan Soto’s walk-off hit against Will Smith in the bottom of the ninth. The Braves lost 6-5 in Washington and start the season 0-4 for the first time since 2016.
The score was tied 5-5 in the ninth. Enter Smith, who had a stellar spring and struck out every hitter he faced in his previous appearance. Yet the unraveling happened quickly. Victor Robles singled. Trea Turner was hit by a pitch. Soto knocked a 3-0 pitch to center that ended the game in the blink of an eye. It squandered the Braves’ best offensive performance of the season.
Ronald Acuna homered on Max Scherzer’s first pitch. Freddie Freeman homered later in the inning. It was the first two home runs of 2021 for the Braves’ cornerstone players. Dansby Swanson homered to start the second inning. Acuna went deep again in the third, collecting his second of three RBIs on the day. The Braves scored four runs without any outs in the third inning, surpassing the three total runs they scored while getting swept in Philadelphia over the weekend.
It was the third time Scherzer has surrendered four homers in a game. He ultimately settled in, retiring 10 consecutive Braves before exiting, but the team couldn’t have asked for much more success against the three-time Cy Young winner.
“That’s the one positive there, that we scored some runs,” manager Brian Snitker said. “That’s a good start here. Hopefully we start punching some hits together. It was good to see some guys (hit) off a really, really good pitcher and score a bunch of runs like that.”
Scherzer left with the score tied 4-4. The Braves loaded the bases against Kyle Finnegan with Austin Riley’s and Cristian Pache’s singles (the latter was a bunt), along with Pablo Sandoval’s eight-pitch walk. Acuna hit a chopper that scored the go-ahead run. The Nationals would later tie the score in the eighth off A.J. Minter.
Braves lefty Drew Smyly was effective in his first outing. He allowed four runs, only two earned, and struck out eight against one walk. His curveball did damage, generating 15 called strikes and whiffs on 39 pitches. He retired the final 10 Nationals he faced.
Smyly gave up a homer to Turner and saw another two runs score on Jonathan Lucroy’s double (Ozzie Albies’ previous error made the runs unearned), but he was mostly efficient. He covered six innings, and as the Braves learned last season, one can’t undervalue leaving less work for the bullpen. Unfortunately for the team, the bullpen wasn’t at its best.
The Nationals loaded the bases against Tyler Matzek with two out in the seventh inning. The Braves pulled Matzek to have Josh Tomlin face Turner. After falling behind 2-0, Tomlin retired Turner on a shallow fly to left. Tomlin isn’t often used in high-leverage situations – he’s a long reliever usually cover innings in bulk – but he came through in a tight spot.
An inning later, Minter let the Nationals load the bases with one out. Andrew Stevenson slapped a ball that was deflected off third baseman Riley’s glove and scored the tying run. Minter retired the next two hitters to leave the bases loaded for the second consecutive frame. The Braves’ offense couldn’t follow with a run, leading to the Nationals’ ninth.
Overall, the bullpen allowed six hits and issued three walks.
“It’s going to happen sometimes,” Snitker said. “It’s always accentuated in this situation, but they (the relievers) have been really good. They were really good for us last year and they’re going to be big for us again this year. But sometimes they have bad days, too.”
The Braves have had four bad games in a row, operating on the thought that the final result is all that matters. The process shows there’s more to it, however. The team has caught some bad breaks, hitting the ball hard but right at defenders. The Phillies found the right spots repeatedly in the first series. Tuesday, the bullpen had a poor showing. It doesn’t become a real problem until it’s a trend. For now, a four-game sample size isn’t reason for concern.
“It’s obviously not the way anyone wanted to start,” Smyly said. “But we have 158 more games to play. If you want to dissect the first four games, I think we could’ve easily won three of the four. ... They’re not hitting the ball hard off us. We’re coming up just short. I don’t think anyone is too worried. We have to turn it around and get the first one underneath us and get back in the winning column.”
The Braves and Nationals conclude their series with a doubleheader Wednesday beginning at 12:05 p.m. Both games will be seven innings. The Braves will then have Thursday off before opening their first homestand starts Friday night against the Phillies.
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