Good from start to fin­ish

The Washington Post - - SPORTS - BY JORGE CASTILLO

at­lanta — Shawn Kel­ley emerged from the vis­i­tors’ bullpen at SunTrust Park at 10:03 p.m. on Thurs­day as the gi­gan­tic video board in cen­ter field showed a mon­tage of At­lanta Braves high­lights. Those in at­ten­dance tom­a­hawk-chopped in uni­son.

It was the mid­dle of the ninth in­ning of Wash­ing­ton’s 3-2 win and the start of a new era for the Nationals, one they didn’t in­tend to launch in the sea­son’s 15th game. But Blake Treinen’s poor per­for­mance in his bid to be closer forced the Nationals to make a change at the back end of the bullpen. So Kel­ley now has the job when his right arm, which has needed Tommy John surgery twice, al­lows it. Koda Glover fills the role when it doesn’t.

And Kel­ley com­pleted the task Thurs­day, sav­ing Stephen Stras­burg’s sec­ond vic­tory, though not with­out some drama. Af­ter re­tir­ing the first two bat­ters he faced, Kel­ley al­lowed a sin­gle to Kurt Suzuki and re­fused to give in to Tyler Flow­ers, who walked to bring up lead­off hit­ter En­der In­cia­rte. Kel­ley fell be­hind 1-0, but got In­cia­rte to fly out to cen­ter field and es­caped for his sec­ond save of the sea­son — and first as Wash­ing­ton’s of­fi­cial closer — to com­plete a three-game sweep for the Nationals (10-5).

“It worked out in the grand scheme of things,” Kel­ley said. “Prob­a­bly made some peo­ple ner­vous, and it didn’t look at­trac­tive,

but that was my plan to Flow­ers was to put him away no mat­ter what the count was with slid­ers, and he took, so it’s fine. Onto the next one.”

Kel­ley’s per­for­mance com­pleted a two-in­ning score­less ef­fort from the Nationals’ bullpen, seem­ingly a small feat yet a note­wor­thy step in the right di­rec­tion for a bat­tered group of re­liev­ers that be­gan the night with the third-worst bullpen ERA in the ma­jors.

Oliver Perez hadn’t pitched since a 17-3 loss to the Philadel­phia Phillies on April 8, but he was Man­ager Dusty Baker’s choice to re­lieve Stras­burg in the eighth in­ning and face Fred­die Free­man, the Nationals-crush­ing first base­man who has spent the first few weeks of the sea­son atop the leader board in nearly ev­ery of­fen­sive cat­e­gory across base­ball.

“We were joking with him when they called his name,” Kel­ley said. “We said, ‘ Wel­come back to the team.’ ”

Perez got Free­man, who fin­ished 0 for 4, to fly out to left field on his sec­ond pitch. With that, his job was com­plete. Baker in­serted Glover, who recorded the next two outs with­out a blip. “That was real big,” Baker said. The bullpen pre­served an­other stel­lar out­ing from Stras­burg. He al­lowed two runs on six hits over seven in­nings on 103 pitches for his 71st ca­reer vic­tory, the most in Nationals his­tory, with the help from a se­ries of strong de­fen­sive plays be­hind him. Stras­burg walked two and col­lected 10 strike­outs, a few on dev­as­tat­ing change-ups, for his 30th ca­reer dou­ble-digit strike­out per­for­mance. He has logged ex­actly seven in­nings in each of his four starts.

A few hours be­fore first pitch, sec­ond base­man Daniel Mur­phy, who was pen­ciled into the Nationals’ lineup bat­ting fourth at sec­ond base, in­formed Baker that tight­ness in his right leg was both­er­ing him. He asked for the day off. Baker, who al­ready was with­out Jayson Werth be­cause of a mi­nor groin in­jury, gave it to him and ad­justed his bat­ting or­der. Ryan Zim­mer­man took Mur­phy’s spot in the lineup, mov­ing up from fifth to fourth, and con­tin­ued his best April in al­most a decade.

The first base­man dou­bled and scored in the sec­ond in­ning, then clubbed a two-run home run in the sixth off Braves knuck­le­baller R.A. Dickey. The blow, his fifth, stood as the dif­fer­ence in the game and was his sec­ond homer in as many nights, fol­low­ing his grand slam Wed­nes­day. It also was the 220th of his ca­reer, ty­ing him with Gary Carter for the third most in fran­chise his­tory (Mon­treal Ex­pos in­cluded).

Zim­mer­man hadn’t com­piled five home runs in April since 2009, the only all-star sea­son of his ma­jor league ca­reer, and his team still has 10 games left on this month’s sched­ule.

Stras­burg breezed through the first in­ning, strik­ing out In­cia­rte, Free­man and Matt Kemp swing­ing. The only blip was Adonis Gar­cia’s chop­per to third base­man An­thony Ren­don for an in­field sin­gle. He needed 16 pitches. Thir­teen were strikes.

His sec­ond in­ning wasn’t as pain­less. Stras­burg loaded the bases loaded with no outs but lim­ited the dam­age to just one run thanks to his de­fense. He struck out Suzuki. Then short­stop Wilmer Difo made a slick charg­ing play on Dickey’s slow groundball to re­tire the pitcher for the sec­ond out as the Braves’ first run scored to tie the game. Then In­cia­rte smoked a sink­ing line drive to right field that Bryce Harper nabbed down by his shoelaces to con­clude the in­ning.

“Stuff felt like I was locked in,” Stras­burg said. “So that sec­ond in­ning was huge to squeeze out of there giv­ing up only one run, so that was the ball­game right there.”

The Braves added a sec­ond run in the fourth in­ning when Suzuki’s sac­ri­fice fly scored Bran­don Phillips, who dou­bled and ad­vanced to third base on Jace Peter­son’s sin­gle. The se­quence gave At­lanta a 2-1 lead.

It was short-lived be­cause Zim­mer­man pul­ver­ized his two-run home run over the wall in left-cen­ter field af­ter Harper ex­tended the in­ning by tak­ing a two-out walk on a bor­der­line pitch. Dickey, who al­lowed three runs over seven in­nings, had re­tired 14 of the pre­vi­ous 15 bat­ters.

The Braves threat­ened to tie it in the sixth in­ning af­ter Nick Markakis walked with one out, but Michael A. Tay­lor gam­bled to make a div­ing catch on a line drive from Phillips. A mis­read and Phillips could have been look­ing at a triple.

“Michael made the play of the game,” Baker said.

From there, Stras­burg got the third out, put up an­other zero in the sev­enth and left it in the hands of Wash­ing­ton’s reshuf­fled bullpen for the fi­nal six outs.

JOHN BAZEMORE/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Pro­duc­tion on the mound wasn’t the whole story for the Nationals: Ryan Zim­mer­man belted a two-run home run, then got to cel­e­brate with Jose Lo­ba­ton.

BRETT DAVIS/USA TODAY SPORTS

Stephen Stras­burg col­lected 10 strike­outs for his 30th ca­reer dou­ble-digit strike­out per­for­mance.

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