As much of a surprise as it has been over the past week, when the Washington Nationals played good fundamental baseball and strung together some wins, it was perhaps equally unsurprising that the mere sight of the Atlanta Braves in the other dugout caused the Nats to revert back to their old, sloppy selves.
The Braves captured their 11th win over Washington already this season thanks to some timely Nationals errors, a lack of clutch hitting by Washington’s offense, and a 10th-inning walk-off home run by Justin Upton as the Braves downed Washington 3-2 in the opener of a three-game set at Turner Field on Friday.
The loss moved the Nationals back to three games under that elusive .500 mark, while they remained 9 1/2 games behind the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Wild Card derby.
Coming off a stretch off five wins in six games — which could easily have been six wins had a ninth-inning lead been held on Thursday — the Nationals were hoping to make a better showing against Atlanta, which swept the Nats in Washington 10 days ago and has consistently been one small step ahead of Washington in nearly every game between the two this season.
Unfortunately for the Nationals and rookie starter Taylor Jordan, it was the Washington defense that made most of the early-game headlines, both positive and negative.
The Nats turned three needed double plays to back Jordan’s effort, possibly his last of the season as he nears his innings threshhold. But two errors led to two unearned runs for the Braves, who are obviously good enough to where they don’t need any help. A throwing error by Wilson Ramos allowed Jason Heyward to go from second to third on a slightly odd play — Heyward was going on a 3-2 pitch to Upton and Ramos threw through despite the pitch being ball four. Heyward then scored on a double play grounder by Freddie Freeman.
In the third, the Nationals had another double play ready to go, by Anthony Rendon‘s relay throw was wild, allowing Paul Janish to score from second base and double the Braves advantage. Other than that, it was a spotless start from Jordan, who deserved better and at least was not saddled with a loss.
The Nationals began to chip away in the fourth, with Bryce Harper hit by an Alex Wood curveball to lead the inning off. You’ll remember Julio Teheran intentionally hitting Harper and nearly sparking an ugly incident in Washington during the last series, but this one was unrelated. In either case, the Nationals moved Harper around to score on a double-play grounder by Ian Desmond.
It was the second time Harper was hit that people should question. With two outs and a base open in the eighth, Luis Avilan came up and in and hit Harper again, earning a warning from home plate umpire Marty Foster. Again, the Nationals made the Braves pay the right way, as Jayson Werth then singled home Ryan Zimmerman to tie the game at two — amazingly, the first run the Nationals have scored against the Atlanta bullpen all season.
Alas, Werth’s hit was the only hit Washington got with runners in scoring position all night — a 1-for-10 showing punctuated by two weak ground balls in the ninth inning against Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel.
With three lefties due up in the 10th inning for Atlanta, manager Davey Johnson called on reliable left-hander Ian Krol, but it was the right-hander that got him, as Upton continued to punish Washington with a walk-off homer.
Otherwise notable was the return of Drew Storen, recalled from AAA Syracuse and thrown back into the ninth inning of a tie game on Friday. Storen threw a sharp, scoreless inning and provided exactly what Washington fans were hoping for after his exile to the minors.