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Key hit proves elusive as Braves fall 4-3 to Nats in Keuchel’s 2019 debut

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The BABIP gods were not on the Braves’ side tonight

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Washington Nationals Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Braves have given their fans a lot of thrilling, memorable victories so far in 2019. Tonight, baseball flipped the script, dealing them a frustrating series-opening loss that was oh so close to being a win, but ultimately wasn’t. That’s baseball in a nutshell, and the Skinner Box-type gratification we’re all seeking will have to wait at least one more night.

Coming into the game, the biggest storyline for the Braves was likely Dallas Keuchel’s debut after his midseason signing. In the end, Keuchel did not fare particularly well, yielding four runs (three earned) in five frames, allowing a home run, and striking out just three Nationals while plunking two (but issuing zero walks in the process).Some ball-in-play shenanigans and subpar defense did him in, but Keuchel also didn’t quite generate grounders as advertised: his 45 percent groundball rate on the evening would have been a bottom-10 mark for him last year.

The game definitely became a bit of a torment for the Braves, but it didn’t start out that way. Keuchel was impressive his first time through the order, stranding Trea Turner in the first after an infield hit by way of a soft grounder from Juan Soto, a nasty pitch to strike out Anthony Rendon, and a fly out by Howie Kendrick. That set up the Braves to take a lead off Stephen Strasburg, as Josh Donaldson led off the top of the second with a walk and switched places with Nick Markakis after the latter grounded out to a diving Turner at short and beat the throw to first to avoid the double play. With Markakis on first, Austin Riley caught hold of a Strasburg pitch and deposited it over the left-field wall, 2-0 Braves.

Keuchel found himself in momentary hot water in the bottom of the second, as he allowed a single to Brian Dozier and then hit Victor Robles with a pitch. But, no worries — strikeout, fly out, groundout and the goose egg went up on the scoreboard. The Braves then extended their lead off Strasburg, as Dansby Swanson somehow lifted a pitch below his knees over the infield for a two-out single and then raced around to score on Freddie Freeman’s crushed double into left center. Keuchel worked around a one-out double by Soto and the Braves were ahead 3-0 after three.

That’s kind of where the fun stopped, however. Leading off the fourth, Ozzie Albies threw away a routine grounder, putting Dozier on second with none out. Robles then lifted a ball into the right-center gap that ended up being an RBI triple despite a near-fifty-fifty (47 percent chance) hit probability. He then scored on a “sacrifice” bunt, cutting the lead to 3-2 but clearing the bases. Unfortunately, that didn’t matter, as Keuchel served up his first longball of 2019 to the following batter, Yan Gomes. Suddenly, in four batters, the Braves went from a 3-0 lead to a 3-3 tie. Keuchel recovered to retire the next two batters, including Turner via strikeout, but there wasn’t as much fun to be had anymore.

It only got worse from there. Strasburg momentarily fell apart in the top of the fifth, walking both Keuchel and Ronald Acuña Jr. with one out, but lived to tell the tale as Swanson grounded into a double play with a routine roller to third. That turned sinister quickly, as the Braves were not as fortunate defensively as the Nationals were. Soto stepped into the box to lead off the fifth for the home side, and tripled on a bleeder down the right-field line that eluded both Freeman at first and then Markakis in right field. Anthony Rendon then blooped a wounded duck over Dansby Swanson at short (39 percent hit probability), and the Nats were suddenly ahead by a run. The Nationals actually ended up collecting two more baserunners off Keuchel in the frame (hit, hit by pitch), but a forceout at home and a flyout by Gomes to center ended the lefty veteran’s night with no further damage.

And then, things got to throw-objects-at-other-objects levels of frustration. The Braves strung together two one-out singles (Donaldson, Markakis on a ball that Turner couldn’t corral hit up the middle) against Strasburg in the sixth, but Riley struck out to make Brian McCann’s plate appearance somewhat of a do-or-die one. McCann tried to do, but the Braves died: McCann lined a ball at 103.2 mph with a 68 percent hit probability, but the random dice roll of the universe made sure that the ball was hit in the vicinity of Howie Kendrick at first base, who snagged it to end the frame.

Touki Toussaint then had a super-weird bottom of the sixth, where he issued a leadoff walk to pinch-hitter Adam Eaton, threw pitches that got past McCann to push him to third with none out, but then struck out Turner, intentionally walked Soto to face Rendon (what?), but then got a pop out from Rendon and a groundout from Kendrick to keep the Braves within a run. All that, just to set up maximum frustration, I guess.

Javy Guerra came on for the top of the seventh and sandwiched two weak pop flies around a Matt Joyce pinch-hit single. Unfortunately, Dansby Swanson also lined out to first, albeit on a less-maddening 43 percent hit probability drive. Jacob Webb came on for the bottom of the frame and worked a 1-2-3 inning, sending the Braves right back to Vexation Lane: facing lefty reliever Tony Sipp, Josh Donaldson creamed a ball over Soto’s head in left field for a one-out double, but was left standing there after neither Markakis (fly out) nor Riley (groundout against new Nationals reliever Trevor Rosenthal) could get him home. At least neither of those drives were high-hit probability ones, or else some Braves fans might seriously have suffered self-inflicted injuries of the hair-pulling-out variety. Webb hurled another 1-2-3 frame to conclude a nifty outing for him, but the capper in Atlanta Braves disgruntlement was yet to come.

In lieu of actual good closer-type-guy Sean Doolittle, the Nationals turned the ninth inning over to Wander Suero, which seemed like it could be a gift for the Braves. Suero did nothing to initially gainsay that impression, walking McCann to start his night. Albies then lined a single up the middle, and hey, tying and go-ahead runs on base with none out. Awesome, right? Wrong.

Pinch-hitter Charlie Culberson stepped into the box, and on a 1-2 pitch, dunked a soft liner to right with an 83 percent hit probability... but the Nationals had Robles shaded very well towards that exact type of ball in play, and boom, no hit for you. Of all the balls put in play in the game with a hit probability of 50 percent or more, the Braves ended up 7-for-13 (the Nats were 4-for-4 by comparison), with Culberson’s star-crossed liner the killer. Suero then struck out Acuña to set up another annoying dagger: Dansby Swanson popped up his offering into no-man’s land in shallow right-center, but Robles raced over and made a diving catch on the 38 percent hit probability pop. Oh well.

With the Phillies losing to the Marlins on Friday night, the Braves’ division lead remains 4.5 games, but the Nationals gained a game and sit 6.5 back as they move to within a game of .500. While the Braves didn’t explode offensively in this one, each starter still reached base at least once. Atlanta is now 0-3 against Washington on the year, and will seek better fortune with far less agony tomorrow as Mike Foltynewicz faces erstwhile Brave Anibal Sanchez.