ATLANTA — There are many ways to look at the Washington Nationals’ weekend in Atlanta. They entered with their biggest lead of the season in the National League East, and the Braves had lost their previous eight games. The Nationals won only one of three games, though, and their division lead is down to four games.
Given the Nationals’ recent abysmal history against the Braves, especially at Turner Field, that’s an accomplishment, right? Sure. Did the Nationals miss an opportunity to all but bury the team chasing them with a series win or sweep? Yes. Is this the end of the world? Far from it.
The Nationals open a three-game series with the New York Mets on Tuesday, the beginning of a stretch of 16 games in 16 days in which they face only two teams with winning records. There are 46 games left in the season, and the Nationals hold the second-largest lead among the three National League division leaders. They won’t face the Braves again for another month.
“They’re confident against us,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “They play us really well. I think going in nobody thought we could throw our gloves out there and win two of three games. We all, deep down, had a feeling it was going to be a battle. . . . We’d have loved to have won two out of three games here. The good thing is we’re leaving here [4 games up]. You don’t want to lose games, but it’s not the end of the season for us.”
Stephen Strasburg’s issues with command, and his struggles against the Braves, continued in Friday’s game in which he allowed a career-high four home runs. But down by seven runs, the Nationals mounted a spirited comeback before and after a rain delay. Had Anthony Rendon’s lineout to center field with one on in the seventh inning dropped in, the narrative of the Nationals’ weekend may have been different.
On Saturday night, the Nationals outlasted a 3-hour 41-minute rain delay to win in an exhausting 11 innings thanks to strong pitching from Tanner Roark and the bullpen — and timely hitting after 2 o’clock in the morning. In the next game, Gio Gonzalez battled his own command and the Braves’ ability to foul off his pitches, while Atlanta starter Alex Wood outpitched him.
What stood out about Sunday’s game were the mental mistakes by the Nationals, such as Gonzalez not covering first base on a crucial play in the fifth inning that broke a tie game. In close games against a division opponent, those gaffes are magnified. Six of the 13 games between the two teams this season have been decided by two runs or fewer, and the Nationals have lost all but one of those six.
“I really don’t know if we played them bad in the past,” reliever Craig Stammen said. “They just happened to come out on top in some close games. When you lose close games, you’ve got to think about the little details. The little things — getting runners over, getting them in when there’s a guy on third, covering first base, throwing first-pitch strikes, not walking leadoff hitters — just little stuff that gets lost within the game. You start doing those things a little bit better and then you can start winning those close ballgames.”
The concerning part is that the Nationals haven’t capitalized on a chance to grab control of the NL East. The Nationals and Braves were tied atop the division on July 20. Since then, the Braves are 6-14 after Monday’s loss to the Dodgers. In the same span, the Nationals are 10-10, thanks to a series split with the struggling Philadelphia Phillies and dropping a three-game set to the Miami Marlins.
But still, the Nationals have gained 4 games in the standings in that span. The Nationals are lucky the division hasn’t been stronger and their rash of injuries didn’t sink them. Seven weeks, a long time in baseball, remain to make a push.
“If we play good, clean baseball, nothing spectacular, nothing great, if we just play clean games, we pitch well and play good defense, we’re going to be just fine,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “It’s not necessarily any do-or-die situation. It’s just we got to go out and play good baseball and focus on that. The rest will take care of itself.”
The Braves haven’t distinguished themselves either. Take out their 9-4 record against the Nationals, and the Braves are a 51-54 team. If the Braves want to be serious contenders in the NL East, they need to not only defeat the Nationals but prove they can also beat the rest of the division. Beginning Monday, the Braves have a difficult stretch where they face four straight teams with winning records, including the division-leading Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics.
The Nationals left Atlanta late Sunday night without the sense of frustration that marked previous trips to Turner Field. After being manhandled by Atlanta since the start of 2013, Nationals players feel the two games they won to close a four-game set in late June in Washington did a lot for their confidence. Friday’s near-comeback and Saturday’s win only reinforced it.
“We lost the series, but I think we showed we can play with them no matter what,” reliever Jerry Blevins said.
Six more games spread over two series remain between the Nationals and Braves. The Nationals will host the Braves in Washington in early September and then make a final trip to Atlanta in the middle of the month.
“There’s still a lot of baseball left,” Gonzalez said. “At the end of the day, it’s not over yet. We’ve still got to go over there and try to compete. We have the Mets coming up. We’ve got to do our job and keep playing one series at a time. I look at this series [in Atlanta] and say it’s over. It’s a high-energy series. It’s exactly what it is. It’s always going to be like this. That’s the rivalry part. Just enjoy it.”