Yes, it’s only April.
But the anticipation surrounding this weekend series between the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals is September-like. If the rest of the games between the teams are anything like Friday’s kickoff, there will be a lot of chewed fingernails and empty antacid bottles strewn about both cities.
The Nationals jumped out to a 4-0 lead early on the Braves Friday, but couldn’t deliver a hammer blow, allowing the Braves to chip away at the Washington bullpen and tie the game in the ninth inning before winning a 6-4, 10-inning decision on the strength of a home run by little-used Ramiro Pena. It was the Braves seventh win in a row and the first loss of the year for the Nationals at home.
As in his first start of the year, Washington’s Ross Detwiler was the hard-luck victim, coming away with without a win after seven stellar innings, allowing only a home run to Chris Johnson. By that point in the seventh inning, Nationals fans were counting outs. But closer Rafael Soriano was given the night off after three straight appearances, and the rest of the Nationals bullpen couldn’t answer the bell.
Tyler Clippard began the eighth inning splendidly with back-to-back outs before his command deserted him. A single and three walks, one to B.J. Upton with the bases loaded, cut the Washington lead to 4-2 and prompted Nationals manager Davey Johnson to go get closer-for-the-night Drew Storen, who escaped the inning on a fly ball.
Denard Span swipes his first base as a Nat, but Washington falls apart late against the first-place Braves. (Image: Joy R. Absalon, USA Today)
And while the ninth was shaky for Storen, as the first two batters reached and were bunted over, the former first-round pick was in position to close the game out after catching Andrelton Simmons looking and intentionally walking left-handed hitting Jason Heyward to get to righty Justin Upton. Upton, who has been on fire at the beginning of this season, hit a chopper to third that Ryan Zimmerman probably should have just eaten for an infield single. But he instead tried to force Heyward at second, with disastrous results. The threw sailed into right field, allowing the tying run to come in as well. Storen then retired Evan Gattis, but the damage was done.
“Tough play,” Zimmerman said to MLB.com’s Bill Ladson. “I think first base is out of the question. I’m not going to beat the guy at third. I thought if I turned and made a perfect throw, I had a chance to get the guy at second — bang, bang. Obviously Heyward is fast. It’s really tough as a competitor to catch the ball and throw it back to Drew and just have the bases loaded. In hindsight, that would have been the better play.”
Still tied in the top of the 10th, new pitcher Craig Stammen was also one batter away from closing the inning out. With Dan Uggla on first, Stammen made a mistake to Pena, who had entered the game as a pinch-hitter back in the ninth inning. With only two career home runs in more than 350 plate appearances, Pena was pretty much the last person you would expect to go yard there. But he did, giving the Braves a 6-4 lead and allowing nearly automatic closer Craig Kimbrel the chance to close the game out, which he did without trouble.
Detwiler deserved better. After his seven innings of work, he now sits with a season ERA of 0.69, but has exactly zero wins to show for it. Washington jumped on Julio Teheran for two runs in each of the first two innings, with Bryce Harper clubbing an oppo boppo for his fifth homer of the season. But Teheran settled down and Washington was left ruing the chance to get an early jump on what should be its closest rival for the NL East title this season.
The teams will go at it again Saturday afternoon at 1:05 PM at Nationals Park, with Atlanta’s Tim Hudson (1-0, 3.27 ERA) squaring off against Washington’s Stephen Strasburg (1-1, 4.38) in a battle of staff aces.