As Ross Detwiler was pounding his heavy, sinking fastball on the Atlanta Braves hitters early Wednesday evening, the thought arrived easily. The Washington Nationals were on the precipice of surging ever deeper into a place they’ve never been, inching closer to a potential eight-game lead in the National League East on Aug. 23.
But then as Detwiler’s command of the pitch began to falter, Braves’ right-hander Kris Medlen was able to keep baffling the Nationals’ hitters. That's when things ever so slightly began to slip away. The end result was a 5-1 loss to the Braves that ended with a sloppy, forgettable ninth inning, the final taste in their mouth from a 4-2 homestand and a six-game lead in the division.
That was plenty good enough.
"Of course [it is]," said left fielder Michael Morse. "It’s still a six-game lead. It’s awesome."
They held their breath through injuries to Ian Desmond and Kurt Suzuki -- both of which appear to be minor -- and squandered plenty of opportunities in the late innings. A chance at perhaps squeezing one more bit of life out of its only real competition dissolved for a team that still gets the occasional reminder that it is not actually going to win every game.
Sometimes the other team’s pitcher is just good enough to beat them.
"[Medlen] was just back-and-forth with his fastball," said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who was the only Nationals batter to get two hits off him. "He threw fastballs, predominantly, for the first four innings, he just wasn't missing over the plate. And when you can locate the fastball, that's the best pitch in baseball."
That’s a lesson Detwiler has been focusing on more this season. He threw his fastball on 73 of 78 pitches Wednesday night which was, perhaps, an over-reliance on the pitch according to manager Davey Johnson. When it abandoned him in the fifth on a four-pitch walk to Medlen proved to be the fulcrum of his outing, Detwiler’s other pitches weren’t sharp enough.
"Det had an explosive fastball," Johnson said. "The only problem is he didn't use his other pitches; he just used his fastball. He did have an unbelievably good fastball that, when he stayed down, pretty much overmatched 'em. But you've still got to use your other pitches. You've still got to have a curveball and a change-up.
"Good hitters keep seeing one pitch, I don't care how good it is, eventually you're going to get hit."
Instead of ending their homestand with a larger safety net, they were left with a series victory and the knowledge that, in a three-game set with the division on the line, they gained a game of insurance in the race.
"We played great baseball," Desmond said, his scare coming when he pulled up lame trying to beat out a double play that ended the Nationals’ rally in the eighth but insisted he was fine after perhaps hyperextending his knee. "Great series. We played well against the Mets, we played well against the Braves. It was a nice little homestand."
And for these Nationals, who still have the best record in baseball, that’s enough to mask the ills of one game. It’s enough to move past the poor at-bats, like Desmond’s in the eighth or Adam LaRoche’s first-pitch foul popout with the bases loaded in the sixth.
It's enough to leave behind a calamitous ninth inning that featured throwing errors by Zimmerman and Suzuki, a wild pitch from Tom Gorzelanny, two well-struck hits and three Braves runs to blow open what the Nationals had made a one-run game in the eighth.
"I understand that sometimes you're going to get out," Desmond said, calling himself "doubly frustrated" over his at-bats. "I just wish tonight wasn't that night. But it's part of the game. Fortunately we're in first place and I'll be able to have plenty more at-bats with the bases loaded."
"We don't like to make mistakes," Zimmerman said. "But they happen. ... It is what it is, it happened, and we won two out of three and we move on."
Braves closer Craig Kimbrel erased the Nationals' already slim chances of a comeback by striking out the side.
With an emphasis on shrugging this one off, they planned to enjoy their second off day in a week before heading to Philadelphia to continue an 11-game stretch of divisional play.
"We won two out of three," Morse said. "That's good. I don't think we really look back, we just keep going, just keep pushing."
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