Ronald Acuña Jr. produced a multi-homer game off Max Scherzer, and Drew Smyly created some encouragement in his season debut. But just when it looked like the Braves might claim their first win of the season against a depleted and rusty Nationals club, they were reminded Tuesday of how influential their bullpen can be.
Scherzer allowed four home runs for just the third time in 369 starts, but those early-inning homers only set the stage for the late comeback Juan Soto completed with a walk-off single against Will Smith. Soto’s game ender gave the Nationals a 6-5 win over the Braves, who have started their bid for a fourth straight National League East title with four straight losses.
“I know what we are capable of, and I know what we can do as a team,” Acuña said through an interpreter. “I have all the confidence in the world that if we keep getting after it, we can get it.”
Nobody is doubting the Braves, who have been on the wrong end of each of their first three one-run decisions. They went 11-6 last year in such games, with the assistance of a bullpen that ranked second in the NL with a 3.40 ERA. Former closer Mark Melancon is with the Padres, while former setup man Shane Greene remains a free agent.
But there are still many familiar pieces in this bullpen, which is anchored by Smith, Chris Martin, Tyler Matzek and A.J. Minter. Martin was unavailable on Tuesday due to some recent numbness in his fingers. His absence put more of a strain on Smith, Minter and Matzek, a trio of southpaws who were uncharacteristically shaky.
After Josh Tomlin erased the bases-loaded threat he inherited from Matzek in the seventh, Minter surrendered three hits, including the game-tying single, and issued a walk in the eighth. Minter’s struggles erased the seventh-inning lead the Braves gained with an Acuña RBI groundout.
Smith was dominant throughout Spring Training, and he struck out the only three batters he faced during his lone appearance in Philadelphia. But the 2019 All-Star closer didn’t record an out in Tuesday’s game. Instead, Smith surrendered (in order) a single, a hit-by-pitch and then Soto’s game-winner.
“The bullpen is going to be really good again,” manager Brian Snitker said. “It was just one of those days today.”
Smyly surrendered a two-run homer to Trea Turner and allowed a costly two-run double to Jonathan Lucroy, but the lefty recorded eight strikeouts over six innings and benefited from the early comfort supplied by Acuña and Freddie Freeman.
Acuña drilled Scherzer’s first pitch of the season over the left-field wall, traveling a projected 416 feet with a 107.9 mph exit velocity, per Statcast. The shot increased his franchise record for leadoff homers to 20. A couple minutes later, Freeman tallied his first home run of the season, a 423-foot shot with a 105 mph exit velocity.
The two first-inning solo shots off the three-time Cy Young Award winner provided a much-needed boost for the Braves, who entered Tuesday’s series opener having totaled three runs through their first three games.
The Braves didn't stop there, either. Dansby Swanson opened the top of the second with a home run, and Acuña added his second big fly of the game in the third. This marked just the third time Scherzer has allowed at least three home runs in a start. He had never allowed more than two in any of his previous 23 career starts against the Braves.
“It was good to score some runs like that off him,” Snitker said. “You just wish it would hold up. When you score four off a guy like that, you’d like to think it would win you the game.”
When the Braves were swept this past weekend in Philadelphia, Acuña went 2-for-12 and Freeman was hitless in nine at-bats. Though Atlanta lost on Tuesday, the tide seemed to have turned for some of the offense’s key players.
“It’s just the beginning of a very long season,” Acuña said. “It’s about maintaining the effort, maintaining the energy and keep bringing it every day.”