Tanner Rainey left his 96-mph fastball right over the heart of the plate, and Pablo Sandoval knew what to do with the heater.
The Braves’ pinch hitter crushed Rainey’s fastball 413 feet, over Victor Robles and his leap at the center-field fence, leaving the yard, delivering a major blow to the Washington Nationals. Rainey entered in the seventh to replace Stephen Strasburg, who had pitched a six-inning gem to that point. Strasburg allowed one hit and two walks while striking out eight.
But without an ounce of offensive support, Strasburg’s performance unraveled quickly once he departed. The Nationals couldn’t respond to Sandoval’s blast, dropping the second game of Wednesday’s doubleheader to the Braves, 2-0.
“What these boys have been through, and what they did the last 25 hours — we had to play 3 games — I’m very proud and pleased with the way they went out and played,” manager Dave Martinez said. “They left it all out on the field.”
Rainey appeared just three times toward the end of spring training as he recovered from a muscle strain. And in his exhibition debut on March 21, he managed to record one out, walking three batters and giving up two runs. To him, the important takeaway from that outing was that he completed it without any pain.
He worked scoreless innings in his final two appearances of spring training, and Martinez used Rainey on Wednesday in the late-inning role he carved out for himself in 2020 — when he posted a 0.74 WHIP in 20 1/3 innings.
Rainey recorded two quick outs to begin the seventh, but then he gave up a single to shortstop Dansby Swanson, leaving a slider over the zone. Pitching coach Jim Hickey walked to the mound before Rainey faced Sandoval, advising Rainey to pump fastballs high in the zone before mixing in his slider.
Instead, his middle-of-the-plate fastball left the yard in a hurry, and Rainey didn’t throw a slider in that six-pitch sequence.
“I was good with the selection,” Rainey said. “Like I said earlier, I missed my spot, and he didn’t miss his swing, so.”
Earlier, Strasburg cruised through the first two innings before running into his only trouble Wednesday, walking Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies in consecutive at-bats. But those two-out free passes didn’t come back to bite Strasburg, who forced Freddie Freeman to fly out.
In the fifth, Strasburg struck out Christian Pache, leaving the center fielder to spin away from the plate and lift his head toward the sky. For the first five pitches of that plate appearance, Strasburg worked Pache away — with three fastballs and two curveballs intended to make Pache chase out of the zone.
But Strasburg’s changeup under Pache’s hands gave the right-hander his sixth strikeout of the afternoon, through five scoreless innings on just 69 pitches. He recorded his seventh strikeout with a 93-mph fastball, catching Acuna looking to end an eight-pitch sequence. Then his eighth came moments later, when Albies swung through a high heater.
“It’s just important to change speeds, pitching to both sides of the plate and staying out of any patterns,” Strasburg said. “Because they’re all professional hitters over there, and they’re watching how you’re attacking the guys ahead of them in the order.”
Strasburg retired the final 10 batters he faced in order, but Martinez opted to pinch-hit for Strasburg in the bottom of the sixth, ending his day at 85 pitches of one-hit ball. He mixed his pitches well, relying on his four-seam fastball and curveball a little over 60% of the time. But Strasburg’s sinker and changeup proved effective as change-of-pace pitches, keeping Atlanta off balance.
The Nationals needed a strong showing from Strasburg to cover for the five relievers required in Game 1 of Wednesday’s doubleheader, who pitched the final 5 1/3 innings after Erick Fedde was bounced early.
Meanwhile, Washington could hardly mount a threat against the Braves’ Huascar Ynoa. The 22-year-old reliever opened a planned bullpen day for his side but mowed through the Nationals en route to five scoreless frames.
Ynoa had never completed more than four innings before, but he allowed just two hits — one of which was a double into the right-center field gap from Strasburg.
“He kept our hitters off balance,” Martinez said. “Typically we can be patient with [Ynoa], but today he pounded the strike zone.”
When Ynoa exited for Luke Jackson, Washington still couldn’t breakthrough in a two-on, two-out situation, with Starlin Castro grounding back to the pitcher. Without any run support, Strasburg’s strong showing was wasted in the seventh, when Sandoval powered that two-run homer off Rainey to dim the euphoria of a walk-off win on opening day.
In the first game of the doubleheader, Fedde struggled out of the gate. He allowed five earned runs on five hits while walking three before Martinez pulled the right-handed starter after 1 2/3 innings. And while the Nationals swung the bats well — including a two-run homer from Trea Turner for the second straight game — costly mistakes proved the difference.
Washington benefited from several strong relief appearances, such as a two-strikeout effort on left-hander Sam Clay’s MLB debut. But Wander Suero struggled to control his curveball. So after two singles, Suero’s two straight wild pitches allowed an insurance run to come home.
Castro drove in his third run of the game in the seventh with his third hit, drawing the Nationals within one run, but a double play ended the threat and secured Atlanta’s 7-6 win.