In one of the weirdest games in recent decades, the Washington Nationals found a way to lose yet another one-run game to the Atlanta Braves last night, ending their four game win streak. The loss puts their record against their arch rivals to 1-3 on the young season, and marks the 10th time the Nats have been on the losing end of a one-run contest against the Braves in their past 27 meetings.
There were a lot of demons that plagued the Nationals in 2013, but their inability to beat Atlanta, especially in close, pressure-filled situations was one of the major reasons they found themselves on the outside looking in of the playoffs after having the best record in baseball in 2012. The club was 6-13 against the Braves last season, making them one of the only clubs they had a losing record against all year. Had more of those one-run games gone their way, there’s a very good chance they would have been playing in October.
That being said, the inability to put the Braves away in close games was just one demon the Nats faced in 2013, and even in their extra-inning loss last night, the club showed tremendous promise in many other ways. Most notably, Washington showed the ability to come back from deficits both big and small. They overcame a four-run deficit in the fifth inning to tie the game at 4-4, then overcame a one-run deficit to tie the game 6-6 in the eighth against one of the best set-up men in baseball.
That may sound a bit futile considering the club still ended up in the loss column, but to me that was easily one of the most significant outcomes of the game. The Washington Nationals did not fight in 2013, they didn’t fight at all. In 2014 they have already shown that they not only have the will to come from behind, but they have done it multiple times now with just about everybody on the team contributing. That’s a major step forward in my mind, not only in terms of what capability this lineup brings to any game, but to the maturity and fortitude this no-longer-so-young team is bringing to the diamond every-night.
At times last season, the Nats lineup seemed so dead that there were often just one-or-two batters in a given week who you really felt could make a difference in a game. That means if a pitcher flubbed-up and put the team behind early, you had to wait every nine-batters for someone to make something happen. Early in 2014? The Nats can attack you one-through-eight and so far everybody seems like they can come up big when it is needed.
So did the Nats lose a heartbreaker last night? Yes. Am I waking up this Saturday concerned? Not really.
Other things that impressed:
- The infield defense has clamped down and all of the sudden there are now four major assets on the dirt as opposed to two. Zimmerman-to-Rendon-to-LaRoche was an amazing combination last night, turning two of the better 5-4-3 double plays we’ve seen in a while. Ryan Zimmerman made three great stabs on his own, including one 5-3 double play that had him fire his patented side-arm sling across the diamond. Of course, Zimmerman’s lob flip to second, as well as his bat-dodging, from his knees throw to Rendon on the two 5-4-3’s were even more incredible. Anthony Rendon to his own credit is showing that his quick hands very easily extend not only from the batters box but also to the infield. His double play pivot is absolutely excellent.
- Drew Storen’s changeup looked unhittable last night. This pitch is very quickly becoming his best asset, and as it comes into its own, is turning him into one of the better pitchers in the team’s bullpen. The 26-year-old took the mound in the bottom of the 9th last night, following a dazzling Craig Kimbrel performance in which he whiffed all three Nats batters he faced. Storen did the same, striking out three Atlanta batters in 13 pitches. His changeup was thrown for a strike six times in that frame, four of those strikes were on swings-and-misses.
- At one point in the seventh inning, the Washington Nationals had two outs and Adam LaRoche on second base, Zimmerman on first with Bryce Harper at the plate. An almost-strike three to Harper bounced in the dirt and glanced off Braves’ catcher Evan Gattis. LaRoche quickly scurried to third, but with the ball bouncing so far from the plate, and with the confusion as to whether Harper had struck out or not, both Nats third base coach Bobby Henley and Harper waved LaRoche in. This was a huge mistake. While it did take an incredible play by both Gattis and Braves pitcher Jordan Walden to tag LaRoche out by less than half a step, it just seems so foolish to take the bat out of Bryce Harper’s hands. Especially when he would have had runners on second and third, and had already sprayed the ball around the diamond twice that game. You never want to take the bat out of one of your best hitters hands with runners in scoring position, especially when it involves sending one of your slowest runners two bases on a passed ball.
- Aaron Barrett is hittable, apparently. The 26-year-old who has been absolutely lights out this year gave up his first hit of the season to Chris Johnson after a long at bat. He also walked a batter, but was attributed no earned runs.
- Jayson Werth left the game after striking out to Kimbrel in the top of the 9th inning. Official word from Williams is that the Nats leader had a “groin tweak.” We’ll see how this plays out but his bat and his emotional leadership has been the lifeblood of this team for the past three seasons. Gotta hope he’s okay.
- Anthony Rendon (0-5) has cooled off a bit, but Bryce Harper (3-5) is starting to find his stroke. For Harper, it’s still been a matter of placing singles and getting his swing down, but where the Nats really need him to be is the monstrous power threat he was early in 2013. Once they get that guy back, this lineup will be even scarier.
- Ryan Zimmerman was likely the game’s MVP for Washington. His three-run homer brought the team back from their early deficit, and his magnificent play in the field reminded us why he was once the best hot-corner defender in baseball.