The Nationals don’t need to win Sunday against the Braves, but it wouldn’t hurt

Dave Tulis / AP

It would be reactionary, and probably even disingenuous, to say the Nationals need to win tomorrow against the Braves. That seems like something you say this time of year – Sunday night is a MUST-WIN GAME. But it’s just not. Even if the Nationals get swept in Atlanta, they’ll still have a 5½-game lead with 16 games to play. As Jayson Werth said Friday, “You play all season to build up that lead.”

But, yes, winning Sunday would give the Nationals one less thing to worry about. It is their chance to peel two games off their magic number with one win. A 7½-game lead with 16 to play would be almost impossible to squander. In that case, the Nationals could go 3-13 and the Braves would still have to reel off a 10-5 stretch to tie them.

“You don’t want to get swept anywhere, especially against the team behind you, so it’s a big game,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “I think they’re all pretty big from here on out. But we’ve got a chance to really gain some ground against these guys.”

The Nationals will turn to Gio Gonzalez, who can win his 20th game and boost his Cy Young credentials. He received help in that regard Saturday night from Reds ace Johnny Cueto, who allowed six runs in 4 1/3 innings to raise his ERA to 2.92. Gonzalez will enter with a 2.93 ERA, currently fifth in the NL.

With Michael Morse out of the lineup, the Nationals could also use more help from Danny Espinosa, one of the hitters capable of replacing Morse’s power. In the first two games of this series, Espinosa has gone 0 for 8 with eight strikeouts. 

It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Espinosa, who attended his grandmother’s funeral in Arizona this week. He missed Wednesday’s game in New York, then flew back to meet the team in Atlanta.

After the game, Espinosa remained in full uniform in the clubhouse for more than a half-hour, looking at video. Before the Braves series, Espinosa had hit .300/.364/.500 in his previous 36 games. Nationals Manager Davey Johnson feels the combination of missing two days, then facing a crafty pitcher like Kris Melden on Friday, may have thrown Espinosa off.

“He was really in a good place,” Johnson said. “Medlen maybe got him a little confused or something, because he made good pitches on him. But his timing’s gotten a little off. He’ll be all right.”

Ryan Mattheus is also trying to bounce back. He had not lost control all year like he did in Saturday’s 5-4 loss. Most telling, he said, was when he missed up-and-in with his sinker to right-handers. Mattheus never misses like that, he said. The missing prompted him to ask catcher Jesus Flores if his mechanics seemed awry.

“It’s normally in the dirt, down and in when I do throw balls,” Mattheus said. “I’ll take a quick look at the video. I don’t think it’s anything drastic. I’ll get with [Steve] McCatty tomorrow, maybe he’s seen something. If not, we’ll go right back to what we’ve been doing.”

The Nationals should follow Mattheus. Try calmly to figure out what went wrong, don’t panic and do better Sunday. They could use a win, but there is no need to panic.

“Tomorrow’s another big one,” Johnson said. “They’re all big from here on out.”

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