ATLANTA — The irony of the trot Michael Morse broke into as he rounded first base in the eighth inning Friday night was the conversation he'd had mere minutes before.
Nursing a sore hamstring since Wednesday night in Colorado, a minor development that's come along with Morse finding the swing and timing that had been evading him in his first few weeks back from the disabled list, Morse pulled manager Davey Johnson aside.
"Skip, it's starting to tighten on me," Morse told Johnson at the end of the seventh inning. "You might have to run for me."
Then Morse sent the first pitch from Chad Durbin five rows up in the right center field seats. His swing, the fourth home run of his still-young season, the difference in a 5-4 victory over the division-rival Atlanta Braves at Turner Field.
"That's one way to keep me from running for you," Johnson told him as Morse made his way into the dugout. Rick Ankiel, who took Morse's spot in the lineup the next half-inning, joked that he was going to stop him at third base and tag in.
They could joke then because they had erased a meltdown of a seventh inning for starter Ross Detwiler who'd twirled a gem until that point. They could laugh because they knew they had Sean Burnett to pitch the eighth and Tyler Clippard to pitch the ninth, and their one-run lead felt safe with them.
They could enjoy the moment because, well, no matter what adversity seems to come their way this season the Nationals are still in first place.
And their cleanup hitter, who insists the hamstring issue is nothing to worry about, is just now returning to form.
"That was awesome," Clippard said, a leadoff double and a walk not enough to deter him from his 13th consecutive save. "They'd taken the momentum back. The crowd was into it. And then Morse hits the homer, and it was like the wind was taken out of their sails."
The Nationals left the friendly confines of Coors Field on Thursday afternoon, but their offense, the one that exploded for 33 runs in the last three games they played there, wasted no time picking up where it left off on Friday. They chased Randall Delgado after four innings, they got big hits from smack dab in the middle of their lineup and they watched as Morse, who was 4-for-4 and continued to bring his numbers back to the level he became accustomed to last season.
On Tuesday afternoon, Morse was hitting .217 , still struggling to find the consistency at the plate he knew would come with at-bats. When Friday night was over, Morse was hitting .294 and slugging .441. A permanent move back into the cleanup spot is likely not far behind. And the ripple effect is already obvious. The 3-6 hitters in the lineup combined to go 8-for-19 Friday night.
Asked about the importance of the resurgence of the middle of his lineup, a development Johnson has been waiting on for weeks, he could hardly compile his thoughts. "Oh my goodness," he said. "My goodness."
On this night, it was good enough. It took away the sting of watching Detwiler give back a four-run lead in the seventh inning, surrendering his first runs in 18⅓ innings. He watched his lead sail out of Turner Field off the bat of Braves rookie Andrelton Simmons in the seventh, and allowed the Nationals to blare the music in the visitors' clubhouse instead of wallowing in what could have been.
Detwiler saved a taxed bullpen and shutout the Braves for 6⅓ innings. He showed, again, what he can be. He just couldn't finish.
"I really wanted to finish that seventh inning," Detwiler said. "The first six innings are definitely something to build on, and I can definitely take that forward into my next start. ... [But] our hitters have been on fire lately. They really picked me up. With the four-run lead I had and then I gave four runs back. Morse coming back with that was just huge for the team."
It was huge in the standings, too, as the Nationals distanced themselves further from their NL East competition. The New York Mets moved into second place, four games back. The Philadelphia Phillies sat 10 games behind the Nationals in the basement of the NL East, while the Braves fell into third, 4½ games behind back of first.
More games like this, more wins they snatch from the grips of a near-loss, and the Nationals will be right where they want to be when they look up in a few months, too.
"This atmosphere tonight was a lot like a playoff atmosphere," Clippard said. "I've never been in the playoffs, but I can imagine. It's huge for us, especially because we're a young team and we need these games to get us confidence when it's going to count down the stretch. And I think it does that."
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