Aug 11, 2014, 10:09 AM EDT
ATLANTA — In the wake of yet another series loss at Turner Field, it’s easy to look at the Nationals and declare that they squandered an opportunity to step on the reeling Braves’ throats and create some major distance between themselves and their NL East rivals.
And, to be sure, the Nats would have loved to do just that over the weekend. They would have loved to take 2 of 3 instead of losing 2 of 3. They really would have loved to sweep the series.
But the fact they didn’t do that doesn’t suddenly alter the overarching storyline of this pennant race. The Nationals, believe it or not, still lead the division by 3 1/2 games and still sit in a decidedly advantageous position in the big picture.
“Regardless if they’re 0 for their last 8 or whatever it was, you know they’re going to turn it around,” Adam LaRoche said of a Braves club that entered the series on an 8-game losing streak. “On top of that, they’re confident against us. They play us really well. I think going in, nobody thought we could throw our gloves out there and win two of three games. We all, deep down, had a feeling it was going to be a battle. …
“Yeah, we’d have loved to have won two out of three games here. The good thing is we’re leaving here … you don’t want to lose games, but it’s not the end of the season for us.”
Far from it. The Nationals left town late Sunday night feeling much better about themselves than the last time they were in Atlanta. They didn’t get blown out by the Braves. They didn’t roll over and play dead the way we’ve seen in the past. They actually played quite well.
Friday night’s loss was entirely on Stephen Strasburg, who dug his team into a 7-0 hole that might well have set the tone for the weekend. Except everybody else decided to keep playing and nearly pulled off the greatest comeback in club history, coming one slightly misplaced line drive short of tying the game.
Saturday night’s win was as uplifting as any the Nationals have experienced this season, requiring both physical and mental fortitude to withstand a 3-hour, 41-minute rain delay and then extra innings before celebrating a 4-1 victory at 2:29 a.m.
Sunday night’s loss was their worst-played game of the weekend, featuring Gio Gonzalez’s mental mistake, Matt Williams’ questionable decision to leave Jerry Blevins on the mound for two full innings and a whole lotta strikeouts against Braves left-hander Alex Wood.
Hardly an embarrassing performance overall.
“We showed that we can come here and play baseball,” Blevins said. “We battled them the first night. We had a great win, kind of a momentum-shifting win last night. And then Alex Wood pitched his ass off today. … They’re a good team. They might’ve lost eight straight, but they’re still good. They still have the hitters and the pitchers that they have. We lost the series, but I think we showed we can play with them no matter what.”
The Nationals are now 4-9 against the Braves this season. It’s a disappointing mark against a chief division rival, to be sure, but the overall tenor of this rivalry does seem to have changed some. The Nats don’t have a woe-is-me feeling when they play Atlanta anymore. They’ve actually won three of their last five head-to-head meetings.
Yes, they play each other six more times in September, and those six games perhaps give the Braves hope of flipping the division standings. But think about it this way: If the two teams otherwise play equal the rest of the way, Atlanta would have to win five of those six games to take the division.
And the big-picture evidence suggests the Nats and Braves are unlikely to play equal in those other 40 remaining games.
Take out the head-to-head games, and the Nationals are 59-44 this season. The Braves are 51-53. Yep, Atlanta has been a sub-.500 club against everybody else in baseball and trails Washington by 8 1/2 games when you throw out the head-to-head matchup.
Is it possible that trend changes over the season’s final six weeks? Sure. But is it likely? Probably not.
Frustration over the Nationals’ inability to put this thing away is understood. This still feels like a team that has not played up to its full potential. Thing is, every team in the NL is saying the same thing right now. Nobody has looked dominant over the long haul.
The Nats are still in first place. They still lead by 3 1/2 games. They still hold the upper hand as the stretch run of this pennant race approaches.
“If we play good, clean baseball — nothing spectacular, nothing great — if we just play clean games, we pitch well and play good defense, we’re going to be just fine,” Ian Desmond said. “It’s not necessarily any do-or-die situation. It’s just we’ve got to go out and play good baseball and focus on that. The rest will take care of itself.”
COUNTDOWN TO OPENING DAY
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As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2015 schedule (subject to change)...
MON: 12:45 p.m.
TUE: 2:30 p.m.
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