ATLANTA — The players might not have noticed the small hooks protruding from the wall above their lockers Monday, ringing the visiting clubhouse at Turner Field. Spaced between every other nameplate, they had been installed overnight, a subtle touch intended not as decoration but preparation. The Atlanta Braves needed someplace to hang plastic sheets from in the event the Washington Nationals take back the National League East in their home stadium, in case the Nationals spray champagne all over the place.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Nationals will arrive at the park for Game 150 with the opportunity they have toiled for since February. The Nationals’ 4-2 victory over the Braves pushed their lead to 111 / 2 games and reduced their magic number to just two. Stephen Strasburg finally conquered Atlanta, firing seven scoreless innings through muggy air, drizzle and a stiff neck. Denard Span drilled an RBI double, Wilson Ramos crushed a solo home run and Ian Desmond blocked B.J. Upton’s smash for the final out, allowing Drew Storen to close a sketchy ninth inning.
The performances put them on the verge of clinching. One more victory over the stumbling Braves, and the surging Nationals will be division champions.
“I’m excited for tomorrow,” Storen said. “I think we’re all pumped. It’s a long road, and to be in this position is pretty special. It’s what you’re aiming for from Day 1 of spring training.”
In the sixth inning Monday night, Strasburg twirled Freddie Freeman a 3-2 breaking ball over the outside corner. Freeman took the pitch and stepped toward first. Home plate umpire Tim Timmons pumped his fist for strike three. Freeman lifted his bat over his head and spiked it on the dirt, smashing it into two pieces. Timmons ejected Freeman. Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez stomped toward Timmons and kicked the detritus of Freeman’s lumber. Timmons tossed him, too.
All season long, Freeman had tormented Strasburg and the Nationals. Now frustration had bubbled over for the Braves, done in by their sputtering September and the Nationals’ relentlessness. On Aug. 1, the Nationals led the Braves by 11 / 2 games. In a month-and-a-half blitz, they have added 10 games to their lead and shifted focus to securing the best record in the National League.
The Braves dropped to 3-10 in September, 58-68 since April 29 and .500 for the season.
“We’re running out of games,” Gonzalez said. “And we all, collectively — and I’m talking about from the front office to our coaching staff to our players to our fans — we want to win. Anything short of us getting into some kind of playoff game or a play-in game, it’s not acceptable. And you see guys fighting.”
The Braves fought enough to scare the Nationals. Rafael Soriano jogged into a 4-0 game in the ninth inning, his third appearance since he lost his closer position. Manager Matt Williams gave him a short leash. With two outs, after Soriano had allowed two hits, a run and a walk, he reached the end.
“He was a little bit more out of the strike zone,” Williams said. “Giving up the one run is not the issue. It’s the walk. You’re asking for it with one swing of the bat there.”
Storen came in to clean up the mess. Christian Bethancourt took two close two-strike pitches before he ripped a single up the middle. A wild pitch pushed the tying run to second base. B.J. Upton smashed a 3-1 fastball up the middle. The ball skipped on the wet grass, and Desmond knocked it down. As the crowd erupted, Desmond remained poised, gathered the ball and fired to first, just in time to retire Upton and, mercifully, end the game.
“I don’t know,” Desmond said. “I blacked out.”
The Braves still lead the season series 10-7, but the Nationals have won six of the past nine meetings. Strasburg tossed the final shovels of dirt on their season Monday night.
Strasburg had not earned a win against the Braves since September 2012, and this season he had gone 0-3 with a 7.17 ERA against them. He had allowed three runs in six innings against them last week, an improvement that presaged his dominance Monday night.
“He rose to the occasion,” Desmond said. “I’m sure it wasn’t an easy pill to swallow taking the mound there in the first, knowing the history he has here against this team. Sometimes you just got to choke it down. And he did that.”
Strasburg submitted perhaps his best start of the season and certainly his most redemptive, considering the opponent. He yielded no walks and five hits while striking out seven. At the plate, he laid down a sacrifice bunt that helped score a run, drew a walk and rolled an RBI single up the middle.
“I’ve gotten a little bit better at locating pitches and understanding where the outs are in the lineup,” Strasburg said. “Being a little bit smarter instead of just trying to get into a hitter’s count and laying one in there.”
Strasburg moved to 12-11 and lowered his ERA to 3.34 while he surpassed 200 innings for the first time in his career, meeting a long-desired goal. He also pushed his league-leading strikeout total to 230.
The Nationals have three candidates to start Game 1 of a playoff series. Strasburg displayed why giving him the assignment would give the Nationals their highest ceiling.
“He’s kind of put in a two-seamer this year,” Freeman said. “He’s throwing 95-96-mile an hour two-seamers onto the righties’ hands the last couple starts we’ve seen him. That’s a good neutralizer. And he had his change-up to righties and lefties that’s below the zone. It’s tough to lay off that when it’s below the zone.”
By the end, anticipation swelled in one dugout, deflation in the other. In the visiting clubhouse, the hooks still held nothing — but maybe not for long.
“We’re excited,” Ramos said. “We’re close.”
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Box score: Nationals 4, Braves 2