ATLANTA — Davey Johnson's gait Friday night was a bit slower than usual, the Washington Nationals manager dealing with a lingering toe injury. For Ross Detwiler, it just meant he had longer to stare at the man who came to end his night.
Less than five innings after it had begun against the Atlanta Braves, Detwiler's ninth start of the season was over. The manner in which he pitched, staked to a four-run lead before he took the mound at Turner Field in perhaps one of the most meaningful games the Nationals have ever played, brought up questions.
The manner in which the man who followed him to the mound in the Nationals' 7-4 victory, Chien-Ming Wang, pitched did nothing to quiet them.
As the Nationals jumped on one-time National-killer Tim Hudson for four runs in the first and three more late, all seven coming with two outs, they delivered the latest reminder that times may indeed be a-changing in the National League East.
If there was any greater example of that, it was Bryce Harper being pitched around to get to Ryan Zimmerman, to which the third baseman noted, "Bryce is better than me right now. I'd walk him, too," after he made Hudson pay for it with a three-run double in the seventh.
But as Detwiler walked off the mound two innings earlier, muttering to himself, and Wang slowly jogged in from the bullpen for his sixth career relief appearance, Washington was reminded that it has plenty to settle.
"I was a little disappointed in Det," Johnson said. "He didn't take charge and go right after them. ... I was just getting a little frustrated with the fact that he wouldn't go right after them. He had good stuff today."
It was the continuation of a disturbing trend for Detwiler, who has allowed 13 runs over his last three starts and hasn't pitched past the fifth inning in any of them. It was a first-pitch double off of Wang that officially closed his book, but the runs were all his: 4 ⅓ innings, three earned runs on five hits and four walks. An ERA that sat at 2.10 just 17 days ago settled at 3.88 just before 9:30 p.m.
Detwiler's body language Friday night seemed to emit the same disgust he and Johnson later expressed with his words. He flung his head back, planted his glove on his hip and pursed his lips as an RBI single found a hole on the left side. He pounded his fist into his glove after a one-out walk. He didn't break his gaze as Johnson came out to retrieve him.
If Detwiler felt any added pressure to hold on to his rotation spot as Wang slowly has worked his way back to health, he hasn't admitted as much. Asked if he thought that might be the case, Johnson just shook his head. "I don't know why," he said. "But anything's possible."
"There's not pressure on me," Detwiler said. "I have to go out there and do my job. There's no extra pressure on me. I had the ball at the beginning of the game. It just wasn't a good game. You know the hitters are behind you and they gave you a lead there. You want to go out there and start attacking hitters, don't give them free passes or anything."
A swath of Taiwanese reporters filled Johnson's post-game media session, all wanting to know the same thing: How long would the right-handed sinkerballer actually last in the bullpen? Wang began warming in the third inning and wasn't used until the fifth. When all was said and done, the hurler gave up one run on three hits in three innings, earning the win. Johnson repeats often that he views him as a starter, but the Nationals have had little reason to remove anyone from the rotation to fit him in.
Whether this game changed that, Johnson would not say.
"Yes and no," he said when asked if nights like these make him reevaluate the fifth spot in the rotation. "I don't make any decisions right after a ballgame. Emotions are running pretty high.
"Det has been outstanding all year long. The last two, three outings haven't been vintage Det. He's got a great arm, great stuff. But that one was especially difficult for me. I go to the nth degree, but I thought that was about it."
Detwiler didn't have much in the way of answers other than admitting, "I was throwing a lot of balls," and recognizing 100 pitches through 4 ⅓ innings was untenable.
"It's just one of those days," he said.
But that in itself was perhaps a reminder of how this team is different. In the past, "one of those days" may have surely meant a loss, especially with Hudson on the mound against them. But the music pulsed through the speakers in the visitors' clubhouse and the idea that the Nationals had already taken the first game in a pivotal series — with Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez set up to start the final two — was a nice one.
"These next few days aren't going to be easy," said shortstop Ian Desmond, whose two-run single gave the Nationals an early lead. "It's nice to get that first win out of the way."
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