On a night when the Braves had five rookies in the starting lineup, graybeard catcher Kurt Suzuki homered to put one of the youngsters, starter Lucas Sims, in position to pick up his third major league win.
But that was before one of the ugliest bullpen meltdown in the recent history of a team that’s had far more than its share of such incidents.
Closer Arodys Vizcaino entered the game in the eighth inning with bases loaded and the Braves up 2-1 against the Nationals and proceeded to issue three consecutive walks. Yes, three walks, two of them on four pitches.
Those walks forced in the first three runs of a six-run inning that propelled the Nationals to a 7-3 win against the Braves at SunTrust Park, where a stunned crowd of 25,054 didn’t know whether to boo, laugh or cry as the inning disintegrated.
“I wouldn’t say frustrating; I think it’s just wondering why baseball has to be like that,” Suzuki said of watching the eighth inning spiral.
Reduced to footnotes were the 28th home run by Freddie Freeman, the career-high 16th from Suzuki, whose leadoff homer in the fifth inning gave the Braves a 2-1 lead, and Sims’ impressive five-inning performance in his first start since Sept. 2.
Vizcaino was removed after facing three batters and blowing a save for the first time in 10 chances since taking over as closer at the end of July. He left the ballpark without speaking to reporters.
All three runs he walked in were charged to top setup man Jose Ramirez, who started the inning, faced four batters and gave up a ground-ball single, a double to Trea Turner anda four-pitch walk to Jayson Werth to load the bases before turning the ball over to Vizcaino and watching the game completely implode. Ramirez, too, left without speaking to reporters.
“And it wasn’t like just (barely) missing, either,” Snitker said of the four-pitch walks. “They were shanked and yanked and everything else. I mean, it’s…. It happens. These guys have been really good all year, dependable. They go through little spells also, just like hitters do, fielders, everything.”
Vizcaino walked Daniel Murphy on four pitches to bring in the tying run, walked Ryan Zimmerman to bring in the go-ahead run, and walked Anthony Rendon on four pitches to give the Nationals a 4-2 lead and bring Snitker from the dugout to make another pitching change with the inning now engulfed in flames.
“They’re human,” Snitker said. “Good ballgame for seven innings, kind of went like I wanted it too. Then they couldn’t recover from the little squibber, and they got a fastball up to Turner, then it just kind of fell apart from there.”
Suzuki said, “You’ve got two of our best relievers coming in and it’s one of those nights where it happens. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong time. But it’s baseball. Can’t do nothing about that.”
Rex Brothers replaced Vizcaino and gave up a two-run single to Adam Lind and an RBI single to Michael Taylor before recording the second out of the inning. In a span of nine batters, the Braves had gone from leading 2-1 to trailing 7-2.
“It was awful,” said Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies. “There’s nothing we can do about it. They can make mistakes; we’re all human. Just got to bounce back tomorrow.”
Albies left the game after being hit in the left shin by a Matt Albers pitch in the eighth inning. He’s been hit in the same spot twice recently, but Albies said it was only a “big bruise” and he seemed to be moving without difficulty after the game.
After Suzuki homered for a 2-1 lead, the Braves seemed poised to protect it when A.J. Minter pitched a perfect sixth inning with two strikeouts and Sam Freeman pitched a perfect seventh inning. This after Sims worked five innings in his eighth big-league start and first in 2 ½ weeks, after making four bullpen appearances in the interim.
It was an inauspicious beginning when leadoff hitter Turner homered on the first pitch thrown by Sims, who had given up two homers in three innings in his most recent start Sept. 2 at Chicago.
But Sims struck out the next batter, Werth, to begin a stretch in which he retired 13 of 14 batters including six strikeouts.
“After that (home run) he settled right down and went to pitching,” Snitker said. “Didn’t let it affect him. Had a good mix, good breaking balls, fastball had a little pop on it. He did a really fine job.”
The only batter to reach in that 14-batter span was Taylor on a two-out single in the second inning, and he was promptly thrown out attempting to steal second base by Suzuki.
Sims limited the Nationals to three hits and one run with two walks (one intentional) and six strikeouts.
“I had a good game plan going in with Zuke and felt like we were able to execute it for the most part – after the first pitch, I guess,” Sims said, smiling. “I guess it was kind of a little bit of a wakeup. But then you go on about your business and try and keep your team in it from there. What’s done is done and you move on.”
After striking out Rendon and Lind to start the fifth inning, Sims got into a bit of a jam after Taylor reached on an infield single and went to second on Dansby Swanson’s throwing error on the play. Sims walked the next two batters, Matt Wieters intentionally and pitcher Gio Gonzlaez most unintentionally.
But with bases loaded, he got Turner on a ground-out to end the inning. It would be the last time a Braves pitcher would make a good pitch with bases loaded Wednesday.
Freeman tied the score with a two-out solo homer in the bottom of the first inning off left-hander Gonzalez, who retired the next 10 batters including six by strikeouts. That streak ended when Suzuki homered leading off the fifth to give the Braves a 2-1 lead and give him a new career high for home runs.
It’s an unexpected career high, considering Suzuki was signed to be part of a platoon with Tyler Flowers, who has made 79 starts to Suzuki’s 65 in what has been among the majors’ most productive catching tandems.
Suzuki, who’ll be 34 on Oct. 4, hit his 16th homer in his 281st plate appearance. His previous best was 15 homers in 614 plate appearances for Oakland in 2009 at age 25. In 36 games since the beginning of July, Suzuki has hit .296 with 12 homers, 25 RBIs and an OPS near .950.
The win gave Washington a 10-8 lead in the season series entering Thursday’s series finale between the teams, clinching the Nationals’ third consecutive season-series win over the Braves.