Of the 162 games that the Washington Nationals play each year, there’s no doubt that the most exciting games to watch are usually those against the Atlanta Braves. Ever since the Nationals rose to prominence in 2012, the battle for the NL East crown has been fought mostly between Washington and Atlanta, and games between the two ball clubs rarely disappoint.
Of course, the Nationals facing the Braves is a lot more exciting in the heat of a pennant race in September, or at the very least in an early-season game that actually counts in April. Unfortunately, we still have a month to go before the Nationals start playing meaningful games and two months until they face Atlanta.
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For now, we’ll have to settle for a Grapefruit League matchup between the two rivals, which, as it turns out, can be almost as exciting as a regular season game between the two teams. The Nationals defeated the Braves, 9-8, this afternoon in their first game of the season against Atlanta. But like any matchup against the Braves, it wasn’t easy. And not surprisingly, the game was a back and forth affair from the get go.
Jordan Zimmermann got the start for the Nationals and he did not disappoint. The right-hander pitched two solid innings of work, allowing no runs on one hit while walking one batter.
While Zimmermann still has a long way to go as he prepares or the 2015 season, today’s performance was a great start for the right-hander who is entering the final year of his contract with the Nationals. If nothing else, it was great to finally see Zimmermann on the mound after a winter full of rumors and speculation about the right-hander’s future with the Nationals.
Zimmermann and the Nationals got plenty of run support early on. After Dan Uggla hit a single on the first pitch he saw from Braves starter Alex Wood (much to the dismay of the Atlanta fans in attendance), Tyler Moore followed up with a two-run homer off the light pole in right-center field, giving the Nationals a 2-0 lead in the second inning. Washington stretched its lead to 3-0 an inning later when an RBI single off the bat of Ian Desmond scored Jeff Kobernus.
But the Braves weren’t going away easily and quickly started chipping away at the Nationals’ lead. Taylor Jordan took over for Zimmermann in the third, and the wheels fell off quickly. The young right-hander allowed a solo homer to Pedro Ciriaco to lead off the third inning. The Braves quickly tied the game at three on an RBI double by Freddie Freeman and an RBI single by Jonny Gomes. Atlanta would take a 4-3 lead an inning later on an RBI single off the bat of Braeden Schlehuber.
The Nationals offense shifted back into gear in the fourth inning, however, tying the game at four on a bases-loaded walk by Uggla. Washington quickly added three more runs on a bases-clearing triple off the bat of the red-hot Moore, giving the Nationals a 7-4 lead. Moore has been absolutely on fire in the first two games this spring, going 4 for 5 with two doubles, a triple and a home run. While it’s unrealistic to hope that Moore will continue to dominate with the bat all spring, he’ll need to stay consistent to make the Opening Day roster since he’s out of minor league options.
Craig Stammen came in to protect the three-run lead in the bottom of the fifth and proceeded to give up a two-run homer to Freeman, trimming the Nationals’ lead to one run. The Braves then took an 8-7 lead on a two-run double by Ciriaco. It was a rough day for Stammen, who gave up five runs on eight hits in 1 2/3 innings of work.
But the Nationals offense wasn’t done, either. Matt Skole lead off the top of the seventh with a double and went on to score later in the inning on a wild pitch by Braves pitcher Arodys Vizcaino. Cutter Dykstra scored the go-ahead run for the Nationals on a sacrifice fly off the bat of Kila Ka’aihue, giving the Nationals a 9-8 lead.
After the Nationals scored their ninth run, the back-and-forth early March slugfest was over. Taylor Hill, Matt Grace, Evan Meek and Manny Delcarmen finally brought order back to the Nationals’ bullpen, throwing a combined 4 1/3 scoreless innings to end the game and secure a 9-8 victory for the Nationals. Granted, it’s not the same as a 9-8 victory over the Braves in September. But after five months without baseball, this was quite a game to watch.
Next up for the Nationals: The Nationals will be back at it tomorrow afternoon as they take on the St. Louis Cardinals at Space Coast Stadium. The game will air on MASN at 1:05 p.m. ET, when right-hander Stephen Strasburg faces off against Cardinals southpaw Jaime Garcia.