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Bullpen struggles overshadow Austin Voth's shining start in another Nationals loss

Bullpen struggles overshadow Austin Voth's shining start in another Nationals loss

WASHINGTON -- Before the Nationals’ 10-1 loss Saturday to the rival Atlanta Braves, Davey Martinez tabbed Wander Suero as his go-to choice for early innings out of the bullpen. 

"I love his cutter on a lefty," Martinez said. "And he's got a pretty good changeup as of late, so he'd be our guy."

But, when the phone rang in Washington's bullpen and he made his way to the mound with two outs in the top of the sixth inning, a runner on base and the Nationals ahead 1-0 thanks to an Anthony Rendon double in the first, Suero didn't seem like the "guy" for the job. 

Albies scored two batters later, after two consecutive singles from the middle of Atlanta's lineup. One mound visit later, Suero secured that elusive third out, and a glimmer of hope remained for Washington fans in a 1-1 game. 

Then, two seventh-inning walks and another mound visit later, Suero left the mound and retreated to the Nationals dugout with boos echoing out from the crowd. 

"I had to," Martinez said after the game when asked why he brought in Suero. "Suero's come in in those moments before, and we had that one set up...he just couldn't throw strikes, couldn't locate his cutter. As we all know when you walk in this league you're going to pay the price, when you don't throw strikes and get hit you're going to pay the price." 

After Suero's rough outing, Fernando Rodney completely changed the tone of Saturday's game. 

When Rodney threw his first pitch, Atlanta pinch-hitter Charlie Culberson bent down to bunt but instead was hit in the face by the pitch. Then, while arguing the umpiring crew's call to asses Culberson a strike, Atlanta manager Brian Snitker was ejected. 

The Braves scored four runs in the inning, all earned, with two charged to Suero and two to Rodney. The damage came from a pair of doubles from the top of Atlanta's lineup and a single from Nick Markakis. 

By the end of the night, Erick Fedde had also contributed to the unit's rough night, as the group allowed a combined nine runs on 10 hits and five walks. 

"We need these guys," Martinez said. "We need these guys in this stretch and they understand that." 

Part of why Washington's bullpen struggled revolved around its inability to shut down Atlanta's most potent hitters, an area in which Nationals starter Austin Voth had succeeded.

In his 5 2/3 innings of work, Voth induced 20 swinging strikes on just 80 pitches. Every one of the right-hander's six strikeouts were swinging, including two from Ronald Acuña Jr. strikeouts and one from Freddie Freeman.

"I talked with [catcher] Raudy Read multiple times...even in the dugout after every inning we were talking about how we want to approach every batter,” Voth said. “I felt like with all my pitches, fastball, curveball, changeup--slider wasn't the greatest but I felt like I had decent command of all of them."

There were only two innings in which Voth seemed to struggle on the mound: the fifth and sixth. Admittedly, the righty said he started to tire and, though he wanted to keep pitching, he knew Martinez's decision to go to the bullpen was the right choice. 

He was saved in the fifth inning when Ryan Zimmerman snagged a sharp line drive and ran to tag first base, turning an unassisted double play. Voth's defense came to his aid in the sixth as well, but after a single and two fly-outs too close to the wall for comfort, the starter's evening ended and the dysfunctional bullpen's night began. 

"It was two different sides of the spectrum," Martinez said. "[Voth] threw strikes, got ahead of hitters and made his pitches. Simple. He was really good, real effective. His ball had a little life."

Washington struggled to plate anything other than their early run. 

"We've just got to come back out and regroup," Martinez said. "We only scored one run--we scored one run in two games so we've got to start hitting." 

With the loss, the Nationals' lead in the NL Wild Card race falls to just 1 1/2 games. On the other side of the field, the Braves' victory clinched a postseason berth.

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This image of Anthony Rendon in a Phillies jersey will make Nationals fans queasy

This image of Anthony Rendon in a Phillies jersey will make Nationals fans queasy

Avert your eyes, Nats fans. This image is NSFW in the DMV.

Yes, that’s Anthony Rendon in a Phillies hat.

We did warn you.

Of course, it’s only photoshopped, but that doesn’t make Rendon on the Phillies any more fun to imagine. Frankly, MLB.com should be ashamed for triggering Nationals fans so soon after Bryce Harper.

In a free agency preview, the site offers up some fun (in their eyes) ideas for superteams across the sport.

Would the Phillies open up their wallets for a Nationals superstar for the second straight offseason? The reasoning makes sense.

Philadelphia has plenty of money to spend, an owner in John Middleton particularly motivated in buying a winning team, and a gaping hole at third base thanks to the struggles of Maikel Franco.

Rendon would certainly turn the Phillies into an offensive juggernaut next season, featuring a lineup with the All-Star third baseman, JT Realmuto, Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen, Rhys Hoskins and, of course, Harper. 

They still wouldn’t be a superteam, however, without improving their pitching staff. And thankfully for Nats fans, the big pitching acquisition made in this potential offseason scenario is signed by the Nationals, not their NL East rivals to the north.

Yes, MLB.com imagines a second straight offseason in which the Nationals lose their best hitter and gain the best starting pitcher on the market.

I know Nationals fans aren’t ready to see another homegrown star walk, but please take a moment to salivate over a rotation featuring Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. Livan Hernandez could be the No. 5, and it would still be the best rotation in recent memory. 

After this season, that foursome will have combined for 13 or 14 top-five Cy Young finishes in their career, and it would unquestionably keep the Nats in the conversation at the top of the NL East. And it’s hard to imagine another NL team matching them pitcher for pitcher in October.

Of course, for now, that’s all we can do: imagine. This scenario, both the good and the bad, is a long, long way off from coming to fruition. 

Free agency speculation is usually fun, especially when your team is willing to pay up for big-name players. But this exercise is cruel and unusual to Nats fans who have been through enough already.

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7 times the MLB Wild Card Game has proven itself completely unpredictable

7 times the MLB Wild Card Game has proven itself completely unpredictable

There are no flukes in a 162-game season. Cream rises, talent and skill win out, and the best teams make the postseason.

In a one-game wild card? Well, they call it the coin flip game for a reason.

The Nationals, despite playing like baseball’s best team since May 24, still find themselves staring up at the Atlanta Braves in the NL East. With 6.5 games to make up with less than four weeks to go, it will be a tall task to catch the Braves. And yet, the Nats are doing everything they can to make it happen.

Winning a division sends a team straight to the League Divisional Series, guaranteeing a five-game series. Winning a wild card berth sends a team to a dreaded elimination game, where anything can happen. In fact, just twice in MLB history has a team made it to the World Series after playing in the Wild Card Game, and both teams came in 2014.

The Nationals know just how critical it is to avoid such a scenario, thanks to the past seven years of examples. Here are some of the crazier wild card games since the format changed before the 2012 season

Orioles 5, Rangers 1 (2012)

The second-ever MLB Wild Card Game, and the first in the American League, came in Texas in 2012. In a perfect encapsulation of the chaos of a sudden-death matchup, the Orioles started journeyman Joe Saunders against the defending AL champs, while the Rangers threw out dominant ace Yu Darvish.

Despite their heavy underdog status, the O’s shut down the Rangers after allowing an early run, and eventually pulled away late to win 5-1. It was Baltimore’s return to the postseason after a decade-plus drought, and it was a prime example of how on any given day, any team in baseball can beat the best.

Royals 9, Athletics 8 (2014)

This was a bonkers game that eventually propelled the Royals to the World Series, becoming the first team to win their league pennant after playing in the one-game Wild Card.

The game went 12 innings and featured half a dozen lead changes, culminating with the Royals, in their first postseason game in nearly three decades, walking off the A’s in the bottom of the 12th after losing the lead once again in the top half of the frame.

Making the game even sweeter for Royals fans was the fact that Oakland had previously played in Kansas City before moving the franchise out west.

Giants 8, Pirates 0 (2014) / Giants 3, Mets 0 (2016)

I’m looping these two together because they stand out for the same reason. That reason’s name? Madison Bumgarner.

The greatest postseason pitcher of his generation, Bumgarner played a key role in the Giants’ dynastic run early this decade. These games stand out, especially since both were elimination scenarios.

Bumgarner tossed complete game shutouts in both, with a combined line of 18 innings, 8 hits, 3 walks and 16 strikeouts. Two legendary performances from a legendary pitcher.

Cubs 4, Pirates 0 (2015)

Quick moment to brag here: I was at this game. It was as a fan, not working, and ended up being an experience I’ll never forget.

Jake Arrieta, after wrapping up his Cy Young season, tossed an absolute gem. A complete game shutout, scattering five hits (all singles) across nine innings and striking out 11. It was the first postseason complete game in MLB history in which a pitcher struck out 10+ without issuing a walk.

One of the greatest postseason performances of all time overshadowed an incredible matchup between division rivals who each won at least 97 games, yet still had to play each other thanks to the Cardinals’ 100-win season.

Blue Jays 5, Orioles 2 (2016)

A great game memorable mostly for its final moments. The game was tied 2-2 through five innings, but neither team scored again through the 10th inning.

Then, in the bottom of the 11th, with two runners on, Buck Showalter decided to allow Ubaldo Jimenez face Toronto slugger Edwin Encarnacion, rather than call upon Zack Britton. Britton, notably, had just wrapped up perhaps the greatest single-season in relief pitcher history, even garnering down-ballot interest for the Cy Young. 

Instead of bringing on his closer in a tie game on the road, Showalter went with Jimenez, Encarnacion blasted the fourth elimination game walk-off home run in MLB history, and the Orioles haven’t been back to the postseason since.

Yankees 8, Twins 4 (2017)

The Twins scored three runs in the top of the first inning and were sitting pretty. But the Yankees immediately tied it up in the bottom of the first, proceeding to dominate the rest of the game.

This one is notable for Yankees ace Luis Severino failing to record a second out in the game, ultimately allowing three runs on four hits and a walk through 0.1 innings. But New York showed off the power of a strong, deep bullpen, keeping the team in the game while their offense took off.

Rockies 2, Cubs 1 (2018)

By nature, just about any extra-inning elimination game is going to be edge-of-your-seat exciting, and last year’s edition was no different.

Both teams were coming off one-game playoffs to determine their respective division winners, then had to face each other for the NL Wild Card. The starters for each pitched quality starts, and the Cubs tied the game in the bottom of the 8th inning at 1-1 to ultimately force extra innings.

In the top of the 13th, the Rockies managed to push across a run, and the Cubs were unable to rally in the bottom of the inning, ending one of the most crushing two-day stretches for a team in playoff history.

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