ATLANTA — The Washington Nationals beat the Braves, 7-3, Wednesday night because the Atlanta bullpen, handed a one-run lead in the eighth, walked four straight Nationals to score the tying and go-ahead runs, and even one for insurance.
Outside of Wilmer Difo’s infield single and Trea Turner’s double, the heart of the Nationals’ order did little that inning but decide not to swing. Then Adam Lind and Michael A. Taylor broke the whole thing open with RBI singles, sending the Nationals to their third straight win and 92nd of the season.
Until that strange and transformative six-run inning, the game was close, and it pivoted around a pattern that might factor in the fate of the Nationals moving forward. When facing unfamiliar pitchers, the Nationals struggled. When facing more familiar faces, they rallied. This pattern has played out all season, but stood out Wednesday night.
Then again, familiarity had little to do with Braves pitchers walking four Nationals in a row and stoking the game-changing rally.
Still, the role of familiarity is one of the pre-playoff narratives that recently generated a significant amount of discussion. Will the fact that the Nationals have not seen the Cubs in two months make things harder on them should the teams meet in the National League Division Series? Will the fact that they saw the Dodgers last weekend make things easier if they face them in the NL Championship Series?
The Nationals’ recent experiences with the Braves provide some evidence. For example, the Nationals tend to have trouble with unfamiliar starters like Braves rookie righty Lucas Sims. Most teams do. On nights like these, the leadoff man’s job is to see pitches and work deep into the count, allowing teammates to accumulate as much information as possible.
Turner shirked those responsibilities and instead homered on the first pitch of the game, his fourth leadoff home run of the season, clearly undaunted by the fact that he had never faced Sims.
“A lot of video. Just a lot of video, a lot of data,” Turner said. “If he had thrown a ball, I would’ve hoped I would not have swung. But that’s the game.”
Freddie Freeman, by contrast, should hardly need any video at all on these Nationals pitchers by now. His career batting average is five points higher because of the havoc he wreaks on them.
When Gio Gonzalez hung a first-inning change-up, Freeman hit it out to right, so definitively that Jayson Werth did not even have to look to know its destination. Freeman is batting .340 with five homers against the Nationals this season, .328 with 17 home runs in his career.
But that mistake did not foretell a night full of them for Gonzalez, who did not allow another Braves base runner until the fifth, when Kurt Suzuki hit his 16th homer of the season to put the Braves ahead. Like Freeman, Suzuki has pummeled the Nationals, one of his former teams. Of those 16 homers, four have come against Nationals pitching. Suzuki, who caught Gonzalez with the Nationals, is hitting .462 in his career against the lefty.
“I’m sure he doesn’t want to see Kurt Suzuki anymore,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said of Gonzalez. “[Suzuki] thinks along with Gio because he caught him.”
Still, Gonzalez did not work out of the stretch until the sixth, when he walked Ozzie Albies with one out. Gonzalez struggled through five slow innings in which he allowed five runs to this same lineup a week ago. This time, the Nationals’ familiarity with their tendencies won out.
“This time, we were attacking the strike zone, we were being more aggressive with the fastball in certain counts, then using the off-speed and curveball when I needed it,” Gonzalez said. “. . . I give all the credit to [catcher Matt Wieters]. He saw a different program, different something in that approach.”
Because Gonzalez fared so much better this time, the Nationals stayed within a run until the eighth, when the Braves turned to Jose Ramirez. Of all the Braves relievers, Ramirez has thrown the second-most innings against the Nationals this season. They compiled their first rally of the day when Difo got an infield single, Turner doubled and Werth walked.
Arodys Vizcaino, another familiar reliever, then walked Daniel Murphy on four pitches to tie the game — then walked Ryan Zimmerman, then Anthony Rendon. Veteran Rex Brothers allowed singles to Lind and Taylor that pushed the game out of reach.
“In all reality,” Murphy said. “I think for everybody it still boils down to just getting a pitch in your zone and being ready to hit.”
Whoever the Nationals play in the first round will be far less familiar with Gonzalez than these Braves. Whoever the Nationals play in the first round will be far more familiar to them than the rookies who handled most of the pitching duties for Atlanta until that fateful eighth inning Wednesday. Whoever they play, familiar or not, will probably not hand them a rally like that one. When they get a pitch in their zone, they must be ready to hit it, regardless if they’ve previously seen the man throwing it.
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