The Braves’ winning streak reached 11 games as the Nationals squandered a now-or-never chance to gain ground. No matter the math, over the next two games the Braves can extinguish the Nationals’ realistic hope. Enough small things have created an expansive distance between the two teams.
“When you’re in first place, you want to step on their necks,” Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “Especially when you’ve got this big of a lead you can expand it a little bit more against them. I think we set the tone tonight.”
The Braves have bludgeoned plenty of opponents, and the Nationals have been blown out with alarming frequency. But the Nationals’ deficit inched closer to insurmountable because two season-long trends continued: the Braves’ ability to execute and the Nationals’ frequent abandoning of fundamentals, right up until the end.
All-world closer Craig Kimbrel was unavailable after he pitched three straight days, an edge to be exploited. Jordan Walden’s 97-mph fastballs, thrown as he literally leaps at the hitter, are not exactly batting practice. “But at the same time, is Kimbrel a better pitcher?” Nationals outfielder Scott Hairston asked. “Yes, he is.”
Anthony Rendon led off the ninth against Walden with a single up the middle, another golden chance – the Nationals had already put the leadoff man on base and failed to score in five innings. Manager Davey Johnson signaled for Denard Span to bunt for a hit.
“I didn’t want a straight sacrifice,” Johnson said.
Span, who had started the game on the bench, looked at the Braves’ defensive alignment, with the infielders pinching on the corners, and found bunting for a hit untenable. He dropped a sacrifice and moved Rendon to second.
“When he gave it to me, it was kind of tough, because you know it’s a bunt situation and both sides are crashing,” Span said. “So, I mean, in hindsight, I’m like, ‘Why would he give me the base-hit bunt?’ It’s not surprising anybody.”
Span had accomplished a task, and then the Nationals received another break. Walden’s wild pitch pushed Rendon to third with one out. Johnson stuck with Hairston, a right-handed hitter who had swatted two doubles, rather than send up lefty Roger Bernadina. Needing only to loft a sacrifice fly, Hairston popped up a low, 2-0 fastball behind the plate. Catcher Brian McCann made the catch against the backstop.