If there was ever a moment to admit to yourself that the Washington Nationals’ (54-60) season as contenders was over, it was after Wilson Ramos’ line drive thudded into Jason Heyward’s glove in the bottom of the ninth inning on Wednesday night, leaving the bases loaded and conceding a 6-3 victory to the Atlanta Braves (70-45).
The series sweep for the Braves took their winning streak to 13 games, and gave them a perfect 6-0 record at Nationals Park this year.
Through all nine innings, the Nationals – amazingly – stayed within striking distance of the Braves though they tallied just five hits to Atlanta’s 15.
The Nats’ only hit through the first six innings was a two-run blast off Jayson Werth’s bat in the fourth, which shattered Kris Medlen’s no hitter and tied the game. Medlen dominated the Nationals, facing two batters over the minimum for six innings, until Werth got to him again in the seventh.
He and Adam LaRoche singled, and Ian Desmond drove Werth home on a fielder’s choice. The runs would stop there, though.
The Nationals failed to bring another runner across home plate for the remainder of the game, despite making Craig Kimbrel sweat in the ninth with a double and two walks. The close call was Kimbrel’s 13th consecutive save, dating back to July 9.
Jordan Zimmermann wasn’t great for the Nationals – leaving the game after only four innings – but it was the bullpen that did them in.
Zimmermann labored through four innings, though he managed to allow only two runs on seven hits and two walks. But Justin Upton’s home run off Fernando Abad in the seventh and a three-run eighth inning for the Braves was the Nationals’ ultimate undoing.
Tanner Roark was one bright spot in the bullpen as he made his major-league debut. The rookie took over for Zimmermann, and pitched two scoreless innings, allowing only one hit and making an athletic defensive play to boot.
The loss put the Nationals at 6-13 since the All-Star break. They are now 15.5 games back in the NL East, though they still hold second place. Fewer games separate the Nationals from the last-place Miami Marlins (10) than from the first-place Braves.
After the game, Davey Johnson acknowledged, though somewhat indirectly, that the Nationals will be best served going forward by focusing on better quality of play to finish with a winning record.
"There's still a lot of games left,” Johnson said. “If nothing else, get our pride back by playing better."
They certainly won’t be finishing the season as the NL East champions – the Braves have virtually clinched that title – but going out with pride is a worthy goal for Washington’s once-contenders.