ATLANTA – The Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves, NL East division rivals expected to battle for the division again this season, are scheduled to play 19 times. If the next 15 meetings are anything like the first four, fasten your seat belts.
Friday night, the teams played their third one-run game in four meetings. This one was a scrap-and-claw affair, with the Nationals falling behind early, rallying to tie, falling behind again before taking a brief lead, then ultimately losing, 7-6, in the 10th inning on a flare to right that scored Jordan Schafer from first base to end it, the Braves mobbing Schafer in celebration near home plate.
The loss was the Nationals’ third to Atlanta this season — and easily the wildest.
“A lot of crazy things happened,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who was in the middle of much of the nuttiness. “It seems a lot of times when we play a lot of crazy things happen. They’ve been getting the best of us lately. We have to figure out somehow some way to turn that momentum over to our side.”
The speedy Schafer was running on Jerry Blevins’s pitch to Justin Upton. Schafer was rounding third when Bryce Harper was unable to field Upton’s bloop and continued home with the running run.
“The first instinct it to try to get them to make weak contact so it was a success there,” Blevins said. “But baseball is pretty crazy. Sometimes they fall. Sometimes they don’t.”
Nationals starter Tanner Roark, who normally has exceptional command, hit three batters, the first of his major league career. The embattled Zimmerman made all sorts of difficult plays and unusual throws. Adam LaRoche tried to score from second on a wild pitch, was called out and Manager Matt Williams challenged the call (unsuccessfully). Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez considered challenging two other plays in one inning. Second base umpire Angel Hernandez was hit by a groundball, which prevented Harper from taking an extra base. Braves second baseman Dan Uggla knocked down Denard Span as he rounded first following his RBI single in the eighth that gave the Nationals the lead. Until reliever Tyler Clippard lost the lead in the eighth.
Did you get all of that?
Roark entered Friday’s game with a scoreless innings streak of 13 against the Braves. He escaped the first inning’s two base runners-- one thanks to an error on a tough play by Ian Desmond and a hit batter — but it was a sign of Roark’s command struggles.
In the second, Roark left pitches over the middle and paid the price. He gave up a single, hit a batter and allowed an RBI single to Evan Gattis. Then, No. 8 hitter and backup shortstop Ramiro Pena, who was filling in for Andrelton Simmons, sent a 91-mph fastball over the heart of the plate into the seats in right field for a three-run home run. He was charged with another run an inning later and departed after 86 pitches.
For all that is made of Zimmerman’s throwing and shoulder troubles, he is still a standout defender with quick hands and a key offensive producer. His three-run homer tied the game at 4 in the top of the fifth. In the bottom of the inning, he started a crazy double play.
Roark walked Jason Heyward to lead off the inning. The next batter, B.J. Upton, broke his bat on a groundball to Zimmerman. The third baseman with a worn shoulder ducked to evade the chunk of bat, fielded the ball and threw to second on one knee. Second baseman Anthony Rendon stretched to catch the wide throw while keeping his right foot on the bag. He stumbled forward and fired a bullet to first in time to get Upton.
The stadium erupted, questioning the play at second, and Gonzalez emerged from the dugout. He talked with the umpires for a minute before deciding not to challenge the play, likely because of a sign from the Braves dugout.
Williams has put a lot of faith in rookie reliever Aaron Barrett and called on him again in a crucial spot. He pulled Roark with two outs in the fifth, after he yielded a double to Freddie Freeman. Barrett battled Johnson in a tough 10-pitch at-bat, but the victory went to Johnson, who singled up the middle to give the Braves a 5-4 lead.
The next batter, Justin Upton, spit on Barrett’s wicked sliders on the edges of the plate and drew a walk. Barrett induced a groundball out of Dan Uggla. Again, the ball went to Zimmerman.
He dove to his left, snared the ball, and fired quickly and awkwardly from his knees to Rendon at second. Second base umpire Hernandez signaled an out and Nationals players ran toward the dugout. But the crowd again erupted and Gonzalez jogged out of his own dugout. Players lingered on the field while Gonzalez talked with Hernandez. Then, when he got the signal from the Braves dugout not to challenge, he returned to the dugout.
The game was even at 5 when things got weirder in the seventh inning. With LaRoche at second and Zimmerman at first after a walk, Braves right-handed reliever Jordan Walden faced Harper. He unfurled a wild pitch in the dirt that catcher Gattis couldn’t find. Not known for his speed, LaRoche tried to score from second, waved home by Harper, who had the best view of the ball. The play at home was close but Gattis flipped the ball to Walden in time. Home plate umpire Adrian Johnson called LaRoche out. The veteran first baseman was upset, Williams came out to talk to the umpires, who decided to review the play. The replay umpire in New York confirmed the play that LaRoche was out.
Things went from weird to bizarre in the eighth. With two outs, pinch hitter Nate McLouth drilled a hard single up the middle that hit Hernandez in the leg. Harper, who reached on a bunt single, couldn’t take third because the ball stayed in the infield. The next batter, Span, lined a single to center to score Harper and give the Nationals a 6-5 lead. But as he rounded first, Span’s path was obstructed by Uggla. Span ran into Uggla, his helmet flew off and was knocked to the ground.
The lead lasted a few minutes. The normally reliable Clippard left a fastball up to Justin Upton, who smoked it to dead-center to set the stage for the 10th-inning dramatics. Clippard has allowed at least a run in two of his three appearances against the Braves this season and yielded at least one run against them in each of his seven appearances last season.
“They know me,” Clippard said. “I think it comes down to I haven’t really executed the way I needed to against these guys in particular. There’s no really rhyme or reason. It’s coincidental I think. It’s just one of those things.”