Thomas Boswell: Nationals and Braves battle to be top dog in the National League East


These two teams just plain don’t like each other? Braves first base coach Terry Pendleton and Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche greet each other before the start of the four-game series. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The Washington Nationals may never be able to buy lunch again. Once more on Thursday night, the Atlanta Braves emptied the Nats’ pockets for nine innings. Atlanta took their spare change and probably even their little hankies so they couldn’t dry their cryin’ eyes.

The score was 3-0, but to a subdued crowd of 32,193 it probably seemed like much more. The Braves have now whipped the Nats six of seven times this year by a combined score of 35-16 and have won 19 of 26 games since the start of 2013. When the Braves brought in Craig Kimbrel for the perfunctory overwhelming save it was like a pit bull snarling at puppies.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Oh, the Nationals are also in first place in the National League East by a half-game. And with Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister and Tanner Roark scheduled to face Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Ervin Santana the next three days at Nationals Park, all could end pleasantly for them by Sunday night.

The actual mood among the Nats is so far from what might be expected that they are either wildly delusional about their Braves problem or are about to win the division by a wide margin. They think when Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos return in about two weeks and one week, respectively, that it will transform the lineup. “How good would the Braves be playing if they didn’t have Freddie Freema n and Evan Gattis?” one member of the organization said about t wo comparable Atlanta hitters.

To the Nats, perhaps the key piece of sad news, with which they commiserated, was that Braves starter Gavin Floyd, who pitched six shutout innings, then broke his arm throwing a curveball to start the seventh. “You hate to see that,” one Nat said. “But it looks like they are going to have to find another pitcher.” Again.

All of that, plus their confidence in their own roster, may make the Nats feel better about the duds they’ve played against Atlanta this year. But until Washington can play .500 against these Braves, they can forget everything else. Until you can stand your ground against the neighborhood bully, you’re never going to have money by lunch time.

“So when are you guys going to figure out how to beat the Braves?” I asked owner Ted Lerner after the game. “And the Cardinals,” he said, knowing the Nats are 2-11 against them the past two years.

But like his team, Lerner insists on taking the long confident view. “Did you see where Harper was hitting the ball in batting practice,” Lerner said of Harper’s prodigious batting practice four hours before the game. Told July 1 was a current flexible guess, Lerner said, “How much better can he hit it than that?”

The Nationals should not need reinforcements to be better than 1-6 against a team as hamstrung as the ’14 Braves, who don’t scare anybody but the Nats. They are 31-34 against the rest of baseball and have been outscored by 29 runs. The Braves are a mess. Dan Uggla (.164) has lost his second base job to a rookie. B.J. Upton, the $75 million center field free agent, is a .208 bust. And the Braves’ best hitter, Justin Upton, just missed his second straight game with dizziness.

But when the Braves see the Nats, they scratch out two runs off loser Jordan Zimmermann with four consecutive singles in the fourth inning, and their bullpen slams after Floyd left in grotesque distress.

This was one game among a bushel this summer. But it encapsulated the Nats’ task and their burden. Power shifts in baseball, even within one division, can take years. Just because a rising team has one superb season, like Washington in 2012, doesn’t mean it has established its identity and marked its turf for good. Fine franchises such as Atlanta, a 23-year fixture as a contender, don’t cede their status easily.

So continuing through Sunday, the Nats and Braves continue their three-season argument about who will — or won’t — be the top dog in the NL East. If you crave baseball that matters, then feast now.

Since the beginning of ’13, the Braves have outscored Washington 108-65, a huge margin that proves the record is no mirage. At times, the Nats have played so nervously and made so many fundamental mistakes that it looks like the Braves are in their heads. Yet the Nats held a 19-17 edge over Atlanta in ’11-’12.

The premise for this series is simple: Can the first-place Nats, who have gotten healthier and played better in the last three weeks, stand toe-to-toe with a staggering Braves team that, despite being as healthy as it is going to get, has played miserable 20-28 baseball since a fast April start? If the Nats can’t handle that proposition, introspection and perhaps even some roster analysis will be required.

Just as the Nats appeared to have an advantage — on paper — in April, they may have a bigger one to start this series. The Nats are second in baseball in ERA (3.09) and on a strong pitching roll. They’ve even set their rotation so the one Nat who’s consistently been shelled by the Braves, Gio Gonzalez (2-7, 5.31 in 10 career starts), won’t face Atlanta.

The Braves, meanwhile, are next-to-last in baseball in runs per game. When No. 2 pitching faces second-worst offense in a four-game series, the team with dominant pitching should grind down the weak offense as the series progresses. Nothing in baseball is a law, but that is pretty close.

Of course, similar reasoning about Braves vulnerability proved silly in April.

The Nats are slightly ahead in the standings. Yet they are definitely the team with far more to prove. Do the Nats have an issue with baseball pedigree?

Identities are determined in six months, not four days. But some days matter far more than others. For the Nationals, the “Who Are You” days have arrived.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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