By the time the Washington Nationals beat them, 8-2, Saturday night, the Atlanta Braves had lost 18 of their past 19 games. The Nationals continued to pound Atlanta pitching, the Braves erred more than is healthy, and Gio Gonzalez struck out 10.
The National League East-leading New York Mets maintained their five-game lead over the Nationals by shutting out the Miami Marlins, who are in third place in the division, though their record would leave them last in four other divisions. The Braves have lost 11 straight games yet still are not in last place, saved by the lowly Phillies. As the Nationals push for the playoffs, 17 of their final 27 games come against these three teams.
If the Nationals have any hope to catch New York, they must dominate their remaining schedule like they have the Braves, against whom they are 12-3 — including nine straight wins at home.
“It’s finally going to the point where we’re winning ballgames against the teams we should be winning ballgames against,” Bryce Harper said. “If you look at the Phillies or the Reds or some of the least winning teams, we haven’t done so hot against them this year. That’s a team we need to beat.”
The Nationals must take advantage of their schedule, just as Harper must take advantage of those rare moments when opposing pitchers choose to pitch to him. He has walked 106 times, so they do not pitch to him often.
Braves starter Shelby Miller entered Saturday night’s game winless in his past 19 starts, but he does have the stuff — a high-90s fastball and darting cutter — to challenge Harper, who says he often just tips his cap to Miller since he “kind of owns” him. Miller went right at him and struck him out on three pitches in his first at-bat.
Though the Braves walked Harper six times in the first two games of the series, Miller went back at him in the third inning and got ahead 0-2. Then Harper fouled off four pitches around three balls before driving a cutter low and away out to left-center.
“I’m not sure [how I hit it out] actually. I got pretty good backspin on it,” Harper said. “I got enough backspin to where it got out of the yard. I’m happy about that obviously and happy we stayed ahead all game and got the win.
Jayson Werth called that at-bat, one of the more impressive of Harper’s consistently impressive season, the key to Saturday night’s game. It was Harper’s 33rd home run; the lineup that finished the game for the Braves has 27 for the season.
“It really doesn’t matter who we play right now,” Werth said. “We’re going to have to beat everybody.”
Harper scored his 100th run after doubling two innings later. He is the second player in baseball to hit that mark.
In the seventh, Harper faced former teammate Ross Detwiler, who fell behind him 3-0. Harper took consecutive close pitches for strikes and threw his hands in the air as home plate umpire Jerry Meals called the second, his bat already on the ground since he thought he would be taking a walk. He did not get it, and Detwiler opted not to give it to him on the next pitch. He threw Harper an inside fastball. Harper turned on it, a double to the right field corner. He finished 3 for 4 with a home run and two doubles.
“The guy’s amazing. It’s incredible to see him go out there and play the game he plays,” Gonzalez said. “It’s almost like he’s got the cheat codes to a baseball game. He’s that guy that is right on point with everything he’s doing.”
Gonzalez clung to his command when it tried to leave him Saturday night. He walked four, but felt like he was able to get more on top of the ball than he has during less successful outings en route to his season-high strikeout mark.
Gonzalez walked two of the first three batters he faced but did not allow a hit until the sixth. He retired 11 straight at one point, then allowed two hits and a walk to create a bases-loaded jam in the sixth. Sometimes one troublesome inning has unraveled his starts. On Saturday, he got shortstop Andrelton Simmons to ground into a force to escape the trouble. He never let the Braves punish lapses.
“A team like that could sneak up on you and put up some big numbers on you,” Gonzalez said. “That’s one thing you want to do is try to be aggressive with them and not try to give them a second wind or a chance to fight back.”
Gonzalez improved to 10-7 with the win, his fifth against NL East teams. Sixteen of Harper’s 33 homers have come against division foes. Both will get more chances against those teams this month. Just like the rest of the Nationals did Saturday night, they must take advantage.