ATLANTA — I focused most of my game story on the fact that the Nationals were able to put two bad memories to bed tonight with their 5-2 win over the Braves: 1. Friday’s ugly 11-1 loss and 2. John Lannan’s last start, which ended with him heading to the hospital after getting hit in the face with a comebacker.
But there were plenty of other things that went on tonight in the Nationals’ first win since the All-Star break as they pulled to .500 yet again this season.
– Let’s start with the bullpen. Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen were their usual selves. That’s the best possible thing the Nationals can ask for out of their back-end stalwarts. Clippard threw a hitless eighth, Storen a hitless ninth. And while both deserve all the praise they can get for continuing to do the job that’s become expected of them, one guy who deserves some lauding is Ryan Mattheus.
The rookie right-hander has been superb since joining the team in early June and perhaps even more so since Davey Johnson took over as manager and began trusting him in much more high-leverage situations. Tonight, Johnson turned to Mattheus in the sixth inning with runners on first and second and Alex Gonzalez (who’d already hit a two-run homer) coming to the plate. There was a moment of hand-wringing when Gonzalez laced a ball down the left field line that, if fair, would have been a sure double but it fell to the left of the foul line. Mattheus then easily retired Gonzalez on a fielder’s choice force at second base.
He then pitched a perfect seventh and was followed by Clippard and Storen. The bullpen as a whole retired all 10 batters they faced Saturday night, continuing to build their reputation as one of the team’s strengths. This year, they’ve held opponents to a .227 batting average while being forced into the third-most high-leverage situations in the National League (which isn’t surprising considering the Nationals have played 36 one-run games this year.)
Johnson didn’t hold back when discussing Mattheus, who made his major league debut just weeks ago after a long recovery from Tommy John.
“He’s been good for me all year long and he was good again tonight,” Johnson said. “I gave him a big inning. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (to realize how good he’s been). He’s been outstanding ever since he got here. He’s basically gone right after hitters. He’s handled left-handers as well as right-handers and he’s a good one, real good one.”
– The Nationals defense took a lot of heat Friday night when they committed five errors so it’s worth noting that they played superb in the field on Saturday. Particularly Ian Desmond, who made several outstanding defensive plays but extending to all of his fellow infielders. Danny Espinosa made a phenomenal play on a high bouncer in the second inning, one batter before Gonzalez hit his two-run homer. Were it not for Espinosa’s quick reaction and strong throw to get Jason Heyward at first, it would have been a three-run shot that would have tied the game. Who knows where things go from that point?
The Nationals simply played better on Saturday in all facets of the game, but defense was a huge part of that.
“It’s not a good game (Friday) night because we made a couple errors on routine plays,” said catcher Wilson Ramos. “We made five errors. For me, when the team makes a lot of errors, you don’t have a chance to win. So today, to play good defense, that’s what we needed to play all nine innings.”
Particularly for Desmond it’s been impressive to watch his transformation from a much-maligned defensive shortstop to one who continues to make not only the routine plays but the exceptional ones, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by his manager.
“He’s unbelievable,” Johnson said. “He has a very high ceiling. Ever since I saw him I really appreciate his ability. His bat’s going to be there. I’m not worried about his bat. He’s just an outstanding athlete.
“He’s like a leader. He’s the first one here. Loves baseball. Loves to play, loves to compete. He’s fought himself a lot this year because when the team was struggling, not playing very well, he kind of put it on his shoulders. That’s not a burden to bear. He’s going to have a great second half.”
– John Lannan pitched well, yet again, and that was important for him particularly because of the way his last start ended but he also hit well and that was noteworthy all on its own. Lannan entered the game still looking for his first hit of the season (an 0-for-32 stretch) and he finally got it — along with two RBI — when he ripped a bouncing single up the middle with the bases loaded in the second inning.
“I couldn’t believe that was his first hit,” Johnson said. “I thought we were going to call timeout and get the ball but I was thinking about that – ‘Hey if that’s his first hit let’s get it,’ but it was a big hit.”
On a team with good hitting pitchers like Jason Marquis, Livan Hernandez and even Jordan Zimmermann, Lannan joked often about his 0-fer and his prowess, or lack thereof, in the batters box. He added a second hit in the sixth inning and raised his average nine whole points.
“Definitely a monkey off the back,” Lannan admitted. “I want to help the team out as much as possible. So those two runs definitely helped. But you’ve got to take pride in your bunting and your hitting, especially as a pitcher in the National League. Hopefully it’s the start of something that I can help the team out every five days, and not just on the mound, but as well at bat.”
– The game was delayed a few minutes in the eighth inning Saturday night when a man — dressed in a bridal gown — leapt over the right center field wall at Turner Field and ran midway into the outfield. He then lifted his arms as if to invite the security guards who were already charging and was tackled pretty mightily between Jayson Werth and Rick Ankiel.
The man-bride was then promptly removed, his train flowing over the outfield grass as he was escorted out, ending one of the stranger scenes you’ll see at a ballpark.
“I thought it only happened in New York,” Johnson said with a smile. “That was a pretty good open field tackle, too. I just wondered, was he getting married? Was he coming from the wedding? Or was he going to the wedding?”
All of his questions, unfortunately, went unanswered. On the mound, though, his pitcher, Clippard, tried to keep himself focused and loose.
“That was something I had never experienced before,” Clippard said. “It’s kind of frustrating. Threw off my rhythm a little bit but I got through it… I’m out there, the crowd was reacting, whatever. I was trying to stay as focused as possible. I threw a couple pitches to try to combat that and luckily enough it worked out.”
Clippard got Freddie Freeman to fly out to right field shortly thereafter.
– Jerry Hairston Jr. went 1-for-3 with a walk and a run scored while playing nine innings in the field with Double-A Harrisburg in his second rehab start since fracturing his wrist on June 29. Hairston was expected to play with Harrisburg again on Sunday but Geoff Morrow from the Patriot-News in Harrisburg tweeted that Hairston’s time with the Senators was done and he was heading to Houston to meet the team on Monday.
The Nationals will have to make a roster move to accommodate Hairston’s activation but they have yet to tip their hand as to who may be the odd man out.