Never before have Nats fans felt such emotional extremes on one day.
Stephen Strasburg suffered an oblique injury and left his start after two innings, but Craig Stammen was perfect in four innings of relief and helped the Nats (28-27) eke out a win in one of their most important games thus far this season, 3-2 over the Atlanta Braves.
The game started innocuously enough. Denard Span led off with a single and scored on a Steve Lombardozzi sacrifice fly to give the Nats a quick 1-0 lead. In the second, Kurt Suzuki hit into an RBI fielder’s choice to double that lead. A few outs and a Freddie Freeman solo homer later, Strasburg struck out Dan Uggla to end the second inning. Afterwards, everyone watching the game was shocked to see Davey Johnson, pitching coach Steve McCatty, and Strasburg having a relatively heated conversation and Stammen warming up with alacrity in the bullpen. Sure enough, Stammen came out for the third, and the Twitterverse was in a tizzy over the unknown state of the Nationals’ ace.
Near the end of the game, news started to leak out: Strasburg had a problem with a back muscle, not his arm, which elicited a sigh of relief. Meanwhile, the game went on. Stammen saved what looked to be a disastrous day; he threw four perfect innings of relief to maintain the Nats’ slim lead. The Nats added a third run in the same way they got the first: a Span triple led off the sixth, and he was driven in by a Lombardozzi sac fly. That would be the team’s final run, but the offense fared well overall, managing nine hits.
Tyler Clippard took over in the seventh, which is where things got interesting. Clippard allowed a single to Ramiro Pena, and a wild pitch put him on second with one out. Freeman drove him in with a single to halve the Nats’ lead, but the drama wouldn’t end there. Clippard, as if to up his own level of difficulty, plunked the next two batters to load the bases with one out. Then, as if he had been in control the entire time, he struck out the next two Braves to keep the lead intact. To cap it off, Drew Storen threw a scoreless eighth with just one walk and Rafael Soriano earned his 15th save with a perfect ninth.
I wrote yesterday that the Nats had to prove that they could be a championship-caliber team in this series if they wanted to be considered as one, and they absolutely delivered. Thus far this year, the team has crumbled before adversity at every turn, but tonight they took their challenge head-on and succeeded. Despite the further injury news, tonight encouraged me more than any other game that this team has the spirit and, when healthy, the ability, to make a deep playoff run. However, despite this excitement, the injury to Strasburg is concerning, and injury news on every other front remains bad. It may be a while until the lineup and rotation are whole again.
Next Game: Saturday in Atlanta, 7:15 PM. Gonzalez (3-3, 3.90) v. Hudson (4-4, 5.37)