Kelley gets some help, and Nats win again
NATIONALS 2, DIAMONDBACKS 1 Generous called strike helps reliever in eighth
phoenix — Shawn Kelley’s pitch was low, at least according to the computers. Importantly, computers do not have the final say. Instead of ball four, home plate umpire Doug Eddings called it strike three, a decision that inspired Steven Souza Jr. to toss his bat toward third base in disgust. Eddings’s decision also meant Kelley had succeeded in holding a lead through the highest-leverage situation he has faced all season — the eighth inning of a one-run game.
The Washington Nationals went on to hold that lead for an inning more, completing a 2-1 win against the Arizona Diamondbacks for their 12th victory in 14 games Saturday. The Diamondbacks (24-15) had not lost a series yet this season, but they have now. The Nationals (23-18) have taken the first three of this four-game series.
For Souza, the pitch ended more than his at-bat — Eddings promptly ejected him for his reaction. For Kelley, that pitch could become the start of a revival. He threw it 94 mph. Low or not, strike or ball, he had not thrown a ball that hard in a situation that important in quite some time.
“Last year, I was reaching back and there was nothing there,” Kelley said. “So to reach back and get a little zip on it — and it doesn’t always have to be the radar gun. Usually I can tell.”
Stephen Strasburg threw 62/3 strong innings in which he allowed one run on five hits and struck out nine. He left seven outs to a tired bullpen lacking the services of Brandon Kintzler and Sean Doolittle, both of whom had thrown two days in a row. Manager Dave Martinez couldn’t ask them to push to three again. He has already had to push them to the brink.
To survive until October, the Nationals need someone besides Kintzler, Doolittle and Ryan Madson to get crucial late-inning outs. With a one-run lead in the eighth and a pair of formidable right- Nationals at Diamondbacks Today, 8 p.m., ESPN
handed hitters due for Arizona, Martinez called on Kelley to prove he can still handle the situations in which he thrived for this team two years ago. Elbow pain and numbness truncated Kelley’s 2017 season, and it already has pushed him to the disabled list once this year, too.
So with one down in the inning, Kelley walked Paul Goldschmidt. He got A.J. Pollock to fly out. Importantly, he did so while getting both hitters to take late swings on his fastball — something that told Kelley and his teammates as much as any radar gun.
“Did I think he was going to throw 93? No,” Martinez said. “But he was fired up. I tell these guys all the time, I trust them. In big moments, they have to come in and get those guys out.”
Then, with Trevor Gott warming behind him, Kelley fell into a 3-2 count against Souza, the former Nationals prospect. Kelley gave up a home run almost every two innings last season, mostly on hanging sliders, and his trademark slider isn’t quite back where he wants it yet after his time on the disabled list. So he chose a fastball, knowing he would rather walk Souza by missing low than leave the pitch over the plate. Eddings called it strike three.
“When I throw it, I don’t really pay much attention to what happens after. I know [it’s good] if it comes out of my hand how I want it to — and it did,” Kelley said. “. . . I’m sure for every one like that I got, I had a good pitch I wanted and didn’t get. I’m not going to complain.”
The game would not have come down to that pitch if the Nationals had been able to score more than the two runs they did — one on Bryce Harper’s double in the third, the other on an Anthony Rendon fielder’s choice in the fourth — and hadn’t stranded 11 base runners in the first eight innings in any number of agonizing ways.
Strasburg scared his manager in the first inning, with diminished velocity and spotty command. With Strasburg, any flinch or fidget can foretell trouble, but the right-hander said later he was just wrestling with command. He won the match and kept the Nationals in the game until the seventh, when Sammy Solis got two outs and handed the ball to Kelley.
Both Solis and Kelley made quality pitches, which the Nationals desperately need them to do more often. Madson, who is known to prefer the eighth inning to the ninth, threw a scoreless final frame to earn the save.
“I think [shuffling roles] is a good thing for everybody,” said Madson, who explained that when he changed teams last year and found himself in more important situations, his stuff improved in correlation.
“. . . That’s also an added bonus for guys when they get out of their comfort zone and you get a little more of everything inside of you emotionally. Physically, it comes out of you a little better.”
If big spots lead to big stuff from Kelley, the Nationals might have another weapon in a right-hander who once handled setup duties for them but had all but disappeared. Certainly his elbow could flare up at any moment. But for the first time in 2018, it was his velocity that flared up in a big moment, just in time to save the day.
Arizona right fielder Steven Souza Jr. argues with umpire Doug Eddings after being ejected in the eighth inning against the Nationals.