The bullpen of this 2021 Atlanta Braves squad, like many a bullpen before it, has been much-maligned. To be fair, it hasn’t been a particularly good bullpen, and its 18th-ranked fWAR is probably little consolation to the results-oriented who have experienced both a WPA and RA9-WAR ranked in the bottom 10. In any case, though, the bullpen came up big in this game, as the Braves kicked off their homestand with a 5-3 win over the Nationals thanks to its four lockdown, near-perfect innings.
The way this game started, you may have never guessed that the Braves would’ve actually needed that shutdown relief work. Charlie Morton had a shaky but scoreless first, as he escaped a two-on, one-out situation by getting Josh Bell to hit a weak flyout on a 3-0 count, and then struck out Kyle Schwarber on three pitches. The Braves then wasted no time getting to Joe Ross. Ronald Acuña Jr. started the home first by reaching base on an 0-2, excuse-me swing that resulted in a weak bouncer to the right side. After back-to-back walks by Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies loaded the bases, Austin Riley hit a weak flare that usually goes over the infield, but happened to be caught by Josh Harrison at second. The Braves got on the board thanks to Dansby Swanson’s flyout to deep right, and after Abraham Almonte earned the half-inning’s third walk in his first plate appearance as a Brave, William Contreras flared an 0-2 slider on the outer edge into left-center to make it a 3-0 game.
Morton was much more stout in the second, throwing a 1-2-3 frame. Ross struck out the side in his second inning of work... but also allowed Dinger No. 16 to Brave No. 13:
After another perfect frame from Morton, it seemed like the Braves could put the game on cruise control and coast by to a win, but look, it’s 2021 Braves baseball: nothing of the sort was going to happen.
The fourth inning started with Morton walking Juan Soto on six pitches. Unlike the prior plate appearance, this time Morton got ahead of Bell 0-2, but after a couple of fouls, he tried to blow a high fastball by him, and instead, Bell popped a huge homer to left-center to cut the lead in half. Schwarber followed with another towering fly ball that happened to land just shy of the wall for out number one, but the Nats weren’t done. Morton walked Starlin Castro on five pitches, Yan Gomes singled on the next pitch, and after a groundout that put runners on the corners, Ross not only hit for himself but flared a Morton curveball into right for an RBI single.
Amazingly, despite seeing this exact same situation turn the entire game sinister before, the Braves left Morton in. He responded by blowing away Trea Turner with the same ahead-in-the-count sorta-elevated fastball that yielded Bell’s homer earlier in the inning, and the Braves had a slim lead. Nor could they immediately extend it, as Ross struck out the side in the bottom of the inning.
The Braves continued to play with fire, leaving Morton in to face the same lineup that had already tagged him for three walks, a homer, and three runs a third time through. Fortunately, that bad news goose did not come home to roost. The Nationals did collect two hits in the inning, and Castro hit a hard liner with the tying run on second, but it was hit right to Almonte to end the frame and preserve the lead. The Nats followed suit, leaving Ross in to face the top of Atlanta’s order a third time, but the bats went down in order again. Both pitchers departed after the fifth, with Morton putting up a 6/3 K/BB ratio to go with his three runs and a homer allowed, while Ross had a 7/3 K/BB ratio with four runs and a homer yielded in his longest start in four tries. Ross also tied his season high in strikeouts in this game.
So, in the sixth, the Braves turned it over to the bullpen in the initial form of Luke Jackson, and you absolutely won’t believe it when I tell you that the first batter Jackson faced hit a weak, sub-88 mph roller to third, that turned into a leadoff “double” when Austin Riley tried to barehand the ball and threw it away. What you actually won’t believe, though, is that Jackson actually stranded Gomes in the inning. After a bunt moved Gomes to third, Jackson got a groundout from pinch-hitter Yadiel Hernandez right at Ozzie Albies with the infield in, and struck out Turner after a seven-pitch battle.
The Braves tacked on another run after Ross departed, as Swanson, Contreras, and Guillermo Heredia each singled off of Kyle Finnegan. The inning had further potential, as pinch-hitter Ehire Adrianza walked to load the bases and bring up Acuña, but he was rung up on this garbage and there just aren’t really enough words in the universe to describe this sort of thing happening way too frequently these days.
(Yes, the third pitch could’ve arguably been an inning-ending strike call, but still, that eighth pitch strikeout call was horrendous.)
That was really it for this game, as 5-3 was the final score. A.J. Minter worked the top of the seventh and had a breezy, nine-pitch inning that featured another absolutely horrendous strike call on his very first pitch:
He struck Soto out on a pitch that missed its target by basically the entire width of the catcher’s box and then some, and got a first-pitch groundout from Bell to end the inning. Chris Martin threw a perfect eighth, and Will Smith did the same in the ninth, ending the game on a first-pitch flyout by Turner. The Braves did nothing against Sam Clay and Tanner Rainey in their remaining plate appearances.
So, the Braves improve to 25-26, and can get back to .500 yet again if they win tomorrow. We’ll see what happens, but at least they won tonight.