The Nationals seem to have found a formula for winning on the road: Get ahead early, pull ahead for good on a clutch hit in the middle innings and turn it over to the bullpen. For the second straight game, they followed that blueprint to perfection in an 8-4 win over the Atlanta Braves.
This time it was Danny Espinosa who provided the early fireworks with a three-run homer, Chad Tracy with the go-ahead double in the sixth inning, and Tom Gorzelanny, Craig Stammen and Tyler Clippard combining for four innings of shutout relief, with Clippard earning his third save.
The win put the National League east-leading Nats ten games over .500 at 28-18, and ensures them of a series victory over the Braves. Washington will try for its first three-game sweep of the season in a nationally televised Sunday night game. Atlanta fell to fourth place, three games behind the Nats, with Miami and the New York Mets tied for second, 2 1/2 games back.
Washington starter Stephen Strasburg (5-1) was not particularly effective, allowing four earned runs on six hits and four walks over five innings, but he didn’t have to be. As they did in Friday’s opener, the Nats jumped on top early, 4-0, with Espinosa accounting for all the runs. He led off the game with a double and scored on Adam LaRoche‘s sacrifice fly in the first, then hit his fifth home run of the year, a three-run shot, in the second. The homer off Atlanta starter Mike Minor scored Jesus Flores and Strasburg, who had each singled with two outs.
The Braves scratched back against Strasburg, scoring a pair of runs in the second on an RBI single by Juan Francisco and an RBI groudout by J.C. Boscan, and Dan Uggla‘s two-run homer ion the fifth. Starsburg’s day would end after that inning, but not before the Nationals bench sent him out a winner. Ian Desmond led off the sixth with a double off losing pitcher Kris Medlin (1-1), and advanced to third on Xavier Nady‘s groundout. Then Chad Tracy, pinch hitting for Tyler Moore crushed an 0-1 changeup into the gap in left-center to score Desmond.
But Tracy pulled up lame coming into second and left the game with an apparent groin injury. The Nationals did not give word on his status. Edwin Jackson replaced him as a pinch-runner and scored when Rick Ankiel tripled for the second straight game, making it 6-4.
Gorzelanny, who had relieved Strasburg in the sixth, rolled through his first three innings, retiring nine of the ten batters he faced, including seven in a row. But after Francisco doubled to lead off the ninth, manager Davey Johnson summoned Stammen, who got Boscan to fly out but walked pinch-hitter Jack Wilson to put men on first and second with one out. In came Clippard, who struck out Michael Bourn on four pitches and induced a popup to short from pinch hitter Brian McCann to end the game.
Champ of the Game: Tracy. His seventh pinch-hit of the season was as big as any he’s had for the Nats. He’s hitting .429 and slugging .714 as a pinch hitter — .400/.500 with runners in scoring position. Johnson and the Nats certainly hope his injury won’t sideline him for more than a few games.
For the Braves, Prado. He is 4-for-8 with eight total bases and has scored three of the Braves’ eight runs in this series. It’s no wonder Atlanta is dangerous when the rest of their lineup is healthy.
Chump of the Game: Strasburg. He struggled early for the third straight start, and was fortunate that Tracy came trough for him. In his last 14 innings, he’s surrendered nine earned runs on 17 hits and four walks and his season ERA has shot up by a full point to 2.64.
For Atlanta, Minor and Medlin seemed equally bad, but Medlin gets the nod for being totally ineffective with the scored tied.
Unsung hero: Gorzelanny. This was the second straight game the Nats have needed a clutch long relief performance, and the left-hander delivered, allowing just two hits and striking out four in three innings. It’s nice to know the starters don’t have to toss gems every night.
For Atlanta, Uggla gets it for his two-run homer, which put the Braves back in the game.