Josh Donaldson spared the Braves what would’ve been a brutal loss, but their walk-off victory Friday doesn’t mitigate what’s become a bigger-picture issue.
Up 3-1, with the Nationals down to their final batter, Victor Robles slapped a two-run homer off Luke Jackson. The Braves won it in the bottom of the ninth, 4-3, on Donaldson’s bases-loaded knock. It was the Braves’ first victory over the Nationals at home this season.
While all wins count the same, the walk-off won’t mask the team’s ninth-inning issue. Jackson blew his seventh save. He’s been scored upon in 11 of his past 24 outings. The Braves will have his back, but they don’t know what to expect when he takes the mound.
Jackson is a beloved teammate who’s overcome a lot to reach this point. He deserves immense credit for his persistence and work ethic. Since that rough season debut in Philadelphia, Jackson has been one of the team’s most competent relievers. He certainly has earned a spot in the stable.
The Braves still view him as their best current closer option. And there have been times Jackson has excelled in the role. But given the present the realities at hand, it’s also fair to question – or doubt – if Jackson is a viable option to finish games on the grand stage.
“As a closer, that’s going to happen,” manager Brian Snitker said, referencing Jackson’s blown save. “And he has to be ready because in the same situation tomorrow, he’s going to be out there again. You have to have a short memory in that role.”
The disparaged Braves bullpen is statistically better than it appears. It does not, however, have a reliable option to finish games. As the trade deadline rapidly approaches, the Braves have to ask themselves how different their postseason chances would be with one of the available relievers, then weigh that against the cost.
What’s undoubtedly clear: They’d be a better team, a more formidable threat with an experienced back-end arm. The high demand and low supply of relievers suited for that spot, along with the team’s reluctance to bid heavily on rentals, complicates the situation.
The Braves have mostly overcome their bullpen mishaps due to a league-best offense. Pitching, especially in the relief capacity, has proven to be the necessary ingredient in championships. And while the Braves’ bullpen continues guiding them through the regular season, the postseason will present more routine high-leverage situations.
As for Friday’s game itself, Freddie Freeman, Austin Riley and Ronald Acuna were each responsible for one of the Braves’ first three runs. The team did just enough against Patrick Corbin, plating a pair of runs and forcing his exit after five innings.
Acuna had three hits, including an RBI-double that scored a critical insurance run in the sixth. He’s reached base in 25 consecutive games dating back to June 19, a career best.
Donaldson’s walk-off was his first since September 2015. The Braves had loaded the bases against Fernando Rodney, who didn’t record an out in the final inning.
“I was actually looking at that (walk-off stat) today,” Donaldson said. “It’s crazy how that kind of stuff works out. Freddie (Freeman) did a great job in front of me there (drawing a walk). He could’ve tried expanding and winning the game on his own right there. He had a great at-bat and got the bases loaded. I was able to lay off a couple tough pitches early and I was able to get the finisher.”
Mike Soroka, making his second start since the All-Star break, will face Anibal Sanchez on Saturday. A Braves win would even the season series at 4-4 and ensure at least a split of this four-game set.
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