ATLANTA -- When your most valuable long reliever is also one of your better starting options, there’s a chance of experiencing what the Braves did on Tuesday night, when Josh Tomlin's exit preceded a four-run fifth the Nationals used to hand Atlanta an 8-5 loss at Truist Park.
“He did exactly what we needed him to do,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “It was exactly why I wanted to start him tonight, because I figured that’s what we’d get out of him.”
Those who have followed the Braves throughout the season understand why Snitker was satisfied after Tomlin allowed just two runs over four innings. This marked just the fifth time in the last 10 games an Atlanta starter has recorded at least 12 outs. Max Fried has accounted for the only two occasions a member of this group has completed five innings during this span.
So the Braves opted to turn to Tomlin, whose only previous start since joining the Braves in 2019 was a September outing the club used to set the postseason rotation. The 35-year-old veteran minimized damage over his four innings and exited after 51 pitches. He had previously totaled 30-plus pitches just twice in 2020, and his season-high 38-pitch-relief effort occurred on July 28.
Looking at the big picture, it made sense to protect Tomlin, who is the pitching staff’s Swiss Army knife. But from an immediate perspective, this early removal proved destructive as Tyler Matzek gave up hits to six of the first seven batters he faced in the Nationals’ four-run fifth.
“We were kind of hoping Tyler could go two innings, and then things would start falling in line,” Snitker said. “Then that fifth inning got away from us. The best-laid plans ... We just had to regroup after that.”
After stealing a walk-off win with a four-run ninth on Monday, the Braves did not cross the plate after tallying five runs through Tuesday’s first four innings. The tone of the night changed during the decisive fifth, as Atlanta found itself on the losing end of a game in which it tallied 14 hits and went 3-for-13 with runners in scoring position.
Here are three takeaways:
1. Matzek’s tough luck
Of those six hits Matzek surrendered, three of them had an exit velocity above 90 mph. This included Trea Turner’s leadoff triple, which could have been a single had right fielder Marcell Ozuna kept the ball in front of him.
“The only thing tonight proved to me was he’s a human being,” Tomlin said. “He’ll probably get the ball again tomorrow or the next day and be lights-out like he has been.”
Matzek entered Tuesday having allowed just eight hits and two runs over 11 innings this season. The lefty had blanked opponents in seven of his previous eight appearances. But on this night, he was not able to bridge the gap like Tomlin has done a few times this year while following a starter who exits early.
“What he was doing early on, there’s not many people who go out and replicate that every single outing,” Tomlin said. “Guys were getting check swings and hitting the ball over the shortstop's head. He was really unlucky tonight, and this is a really hard game.”
2. Tomlin’s role
The Braves’ rotation currently consists of Fried and a whole lot of uncertainty. Giving Tomlin a chance to start once every five days might lessen the load of a bullpen that has thrown more innings (110 1/3) than the starting staff (103 2/3).
But at the same time, this would weaken the bullpen, which will need to continue having multiple long-relief options to compensate for the fact it may take some time to stabilize the rotation. So even with multiple holes in his starting staff, Snitker seems to be leaning toward keeping Tomlin in the bullpen.
“He could really bridge to the back-end guys really well,” Snitker said. “That’s why I hate to lose him out of the bullpen. We really needed a good start tonight. I think this will serve us well, having him start. But I hate doing that just because he’s so valuable in the bullpen.”
Riley, who entered the day with a .523 OPS, also produced a long drive that would have been a go-ahead two-run homer had Victor Robles not made a sensational leaping catch at the center-field wall to end the fifth.
Riley’s single came off the bat at 106.3 mph, and his long lineout had an exit velocity of 103 mph. It was encouraging to see the young slugger barrel a couple fastballs. The slider gave him a lot of trouble last year. But he has struggled against the heater over the past few weeks. He entered the day hitting .097 (3-for-31) against fastballs.
“It was very encouraging,” Snitker said. “Hopefully, that’s a good feel there and he can get something going.”