With two outs in the fifth, Upton poked a single to center field. Strasburg fell behind Freeman with two balls. He fell into an obvious pattern between pitches, and Upton noticed. As Strasburg came set to deliver, Upton bolted for second, a running start before Strasburg had started his delivery.
“You know, it happens,” Strasburg said. “I got caught in having a predictable time to home plate. He took a gamble.”
Upton scooted into second without a throw, a stolen base Strasburg had served on a platter. On the very next pitch, Freeman scalded a 3-0 fastball to center for another single. Upton cruised home and gave the Braves a 2-1 lead.
No one could rightly fault Strasburg for the Nationals’ loss. He struck out nine Braves over seven innings and finished with menace, retiring the final six hitters he faced in 18 pitches. The Braves managed five hits against him, all singles, and just one walk.
“I feel like I didn’t let up for seven innings,” Strasburg said.
His offense, oppressed by Braves lefty Mike Minor, had again left him an unfairly small margin for error. And yet, the one moment made himself vulnerable, the Braves pounced.
“We’ve worked with him and worked with him,” Johnson said. “Too regular. He has the same pattern every time. He’s very quick to the plate, but he is locked in his ways.”
The Braves had scored their first run in the third inning by virtue of putting the ball in play and catching breaks — “a joke,” Johnson called it. Jason Heyward and Upton reached on infield singles, and Freeman served a soft liner to right field. Three hits, none particularly fierce, combined to tie the score at 1.
“The lucky golf swing,” Freeman said. “I don’t know how I did that.”
That, too, typified the Nationals’ night. The Braves’ cobbled a run out of three bleeders, and the Nationals ripped liner drives into gloves. In the seventh, Bryce Harper smoked a one-out liner to right, straight at Heyward, with Hairston on second after a leadoff double. Adam LaRoche, who drove in the Nationals’ first run with a double to left center, ended the eighth with a laser at shortstop Andrelton Simmons.
“Have good ABs, put a good swing on the ball, hit it right to a guy,” Strasburg said. “Terrible contact, and they somehow dump it over somebody’s head.”
The small things sometimes include luck, and for one night the Braves found more. But they also took advantage when it came. The Nationals could only regret how another set of chances had slipped away.