Sorting out the Nationals’ sweep in Atlanta

September 17, 2012

The Nationals were swept this weekend for many reasons. They could not produce any offense, scoring in only four of 27 innings with Michael Morse out and Danny Espinosa diminished. The Braves played well, grinding down Nationals’ pitchers and handing leads to their powerhouse bullpen. But the Nationals were swept largely because they did not play up to the standard they set all season.

Between 13 walks, two hit batters and three errors, the Nationals effectively handed the Braves 18 base runners this series. They were just off. No inning showed that like the  seventh on Sunday, when the Braves turned a 2-1 game into a rout.

“They played well,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “And we didn’t play that great. If you don’t play good, they’re not going to give you any breaks.”

The seventh started with Craig Stammen on the mound. He had executed a remarkable escape in the sixth, entering with two runners in scoring and no outs and still not allowing any runs. But he walked Michael Bourn to lead off the seventh, which is a good way to start a mess.

Reed Johnson followed with a chopper to third base. Zimmerman charged and made a do-or-die stab. Rather than snaring the ball on the run, his trademark play, Zimmerman swatted it into the air.

“With Bourn on first base, if I take a step back, it’s going to be tough for me to get the lead runner,” Zimmerman said. “And then it’s going to be tough for me to get Reed running at first, too. It’s one of those play where, before the play happens you said, if it goes up, you got to do whatever you can to go get it to have a chance on either one of those guys.”

When Zimmerman popped the ball in the air, “I just didn’t know where it went,” he said. As Zimmerman spun to find the ball, Bourn alertly scooted to third.

Manager Davey Johnson summoned Sean Burnett to face Jason Heyward. He grounded to first base, which led to a fascinating decision for Adam LaRoche. He could have thrown home immediately, tried for a 3-6-3 double play or stepped on the bag and then thrown home to try to for Bourn. He chose the latter option.

“He made the right play,” Johnson said. “I would rather he had just gone home. But a good throw, we still got him.”

LaRoche’s throw sailed up the line, likely forced by Heyward running to first. Kurt Suzuki lunged, but the slight misfire allowed Bourn to make an athletic slide, eluding Suzuki and scoring the Braves’ third run.

The inning spiraled from there. Burnett intentionally walked Chipper Jones to face left-hander Freddie Freeman. It backfired when he hit Freeman with a breaking ball, and then Dan Uggla poked a two-run single to left.

From there, the result was academic. The sweep gives each team something to remember if and when they meet again in October.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt,” Jones told Atlanta reporters. “You like to leave a sour taste in the other team’s mouth as they’re leaving. And we know that on a nightly basis we can stand toe-to-toe with them.”

The Nationals still hold a commanding lead at 5 ½ games with 16 to play, but the remaining schedule favors Atlanta.  The Nationals close with series against the Dodgers, Brewers, Phillies and Cardinals, all teams either in the wild card race or at least on the fringes of it. The Braves get to play nine of their final 15 games against either the Mets or the Marlins.

There was one cool moment to remember. On his way off the field in the sixth inning, even after a ragged start had lessened his Cy Young chances, Gonzalez turned toward third base. Jones stood there after a double by Freeman. Gonzalez tipped his cap to Jones, his fingers pinching the brim.

“One of the greats to ever play the game,” Gonzalez said. “It was just an honor to be on the same field, especially at his house. It’s only a sign of respect.”

FROM THE POST

Gio Gonzalez was worn down and the Braves won, 5-1, to sweep the Nationals and cut their lead to 5 ½ games.

James Wagner detailed how much fun the Nationals have in their clubhouse.

Wagner also looked at the home run binge the Nationals have been on in the second half.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Espinosa getting MRI

Strasburg active after shutdown

Davey wants LaRoche back

Morse hopeful for Tuesday

THE PLAYOFF PICTURE

Nats’ magic number to win the division: 11

To clinch a wild card: 3

Current NL matchups

Nationals vs. Braves/Cardinals*

Reds vs. Giants

*The Braves lead the Cardinals by seven games. The Cardinals lead the Dodgers by one game, the Brewers by 2 1/2, the Pirates by three and the Phillies by four. .

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