The Nationals split a crucial mid-season series against their division rival Atlanta Braves with a win on Sunday in front of just a hair under 40,000 fans present. The 3-1 win put them 1.5 games up on the Braves, and 2.5 games up on the Marlins. While concerns remain against the Nationals’ effectiveness in extra innings games and against the Braves (3-7) as a whole, the Nationals did put up a 4-2 homestand before heading on the road to face the NL Central-leading Brewers.
From the beginning, the Nationals pushed hard against Ervin Santana, and put together a walk and two singles to get their first run in the bottom of the first. Anthony Rendon’s 5-pitch walk was followed by singles from struggling Jayson Werth and surging Adam LaRoche. Ryan Zimmerman would join the RBI party with a deep sacrifice fly to center to give the Nationals a rare 2-0 lead.
Sandy Leon, giving Lobaton a break behind the plate, came up with a solid single to start the Nationals’ half of the fifth inning, catching Freddie Freeman off the hand. After a laborious sacrifice bunt from Roark, Denard Span (now besting Werth in both batting average and slugging percentage) would gather the RBI on a double and make it 3-1. The Nationals would put up an insurance run in the 8th off a double by Anthony Rendon, a groundout from Jayson Werth, and a wild pitch from Luis Avilan that brought Rendon home.
Tanner Roark put a solid effort in through five innings, but his sixth inning was off the rails. After 20 batters, Roark had thrown 17 first pitch strikes and put up a solid effort. In the sixth, though, all bets were off. A single from Freddie Freeman was followed by a five-pitch walk to Evan Gattis. Justin Upton would park a single to left and end the young starter’s day. At times, Roark was challenged by control, just missing his paint-the-corners targets. He surrendered three walks, and scattered three other hits to go 5 and 1/3 innings, his ERA dropping to 2.79. The Braves wouldn’t put up a fight against Craig Stammen, Tyler Clippard or Rafael Soriano, going down in order after the bullpen took over.
That’s not to say the Braves wouldn’t put up a fight, though, both Chris Johnson and Justin Upton put up a fight against umpires Tim Welke and Mark Carlson. Both were ejected after questioning 3rd strikes. Manager Fredi Gonzalez also sent in his objections, though he used a certain scatalogical term a few times less than Upton or Johnson.
Afterwards, skipper Matt Williams spoke with reporters, praising Roark’s tenacity despite a few calls that didn’t go his way that might have ended early, citing his strength in adaptability, demonstrated throughout the season. Roark’s ability to hit the first strike was key to his victory today, according to Williams.
Matt Williams also spoke about some of the narratives that are recurring concerning the Nationals and the Braves, and the Cardinals, to name two teams that have had the Nats’ number this season so far. “I’ve been around the game awhile, the next time we play them, the questions will come. It doesn’t matter to me, it doesn’t to [the Nationals], we want to win tomorrow’s game…that’s as far as they look.” This is a refreshingly healthy attitude, given the tendency for teams and players to dwell on the previous failings and successes, instead of preparing for each of the games with no regard to the superstitions.
The Nationals head to the road with two of their top bats slumping in Desmond and Werth, and both are due an off-day to let their rest and recuperate, including their mental faculties, Williams was quick to say. Fortunately, though, others are sparking off, with Denard Span (6-for-17) and Danny Espinosa (5-for-14 against ATL) surging forward. After Milwaukee, the Nationals head to Chicago for four games against the cellar-dwelling Cubs at Wrigley, including a double-entry doubleheader next Saturday.