ATLANTA — There was no true defining blow to mark the end of the Washington Nationals' game Friday night, though it ended unceremoniously. No death knell that began to ring to mark where the game went from being tied, and possibly won, to a 2-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves. It was the little things.
A ball that sneaked through under an infielder’s glove. Another that bounded into right field. A slow chopper toward shortstop hit by Tyler Pastornicky with Andrelton Simmons on third base that Ian Desmond had time enough only to grab and throw. Without setting his feet, it sailed wide of home plate.
The Braves won.
"Seemed like they just kinda bled us to death at the end there," said right fielder Jayson Werth, the last Nationals position player to slowly make his way off the field as the Braves’ celebration commenced near first base.
"This is playoff baseball," Werth added. "Every team we play for the rest of the way is in the hunt and hungry, so these are the types of games we're going to play for the next six weeks. We're going to have some tests, and I think we're up to the challenge. More times than not, I think we're going to win that game."
For the Braves it was the moment life was injected back into their previously stalling drive for the playoffs. The Nationals’ lead in the National League East took a minor hit, dropping to 7 1/2 games, and their magic number to clinch the division held steady at 11. But the Braves, victims of a sweep in Milwaukee earlier this week, tightened their grip on the first wild card spot.
Turner Field pulsed with electricity from the start. The feel, perhaps, of a playoff game. If not for the fact that the Nationals insisted it’d be an easy one to move on from. Their position on high in the standings allowed it to feel that way.
"No one in here is hanging their head," Desmond said, describing his final play as having "a prayer, basically" to get the speedy Simmons. "More scratching their head than hanging their head, I guess."
It was that kind of night, though.
Freddie Freeman battled Ross Detwiler for 10 pitches to open the fourth inning. He fouled off six. Detwiler said it felt like 35. He wore the Nationals’ left-hander down, and doubled to left field on the 10th pitch.
Ultimately sacrificed home by Simmons, Freeman became the only run Detwiler would give up over six strong innings of work, darting in and out of trouble and working with runners on base in every inning but his last.
"They did what they had to do to get on base," said Detwiler, who was satisfied on the whole with his outing and was raved out by manager Davey Johnson. "I was out of the stretch just about every inning."
His effort was wasted.
Outside of Bryce Harper, the Nationals had no answer for Braves righty Kris Medlen. The man who carried a 19-game team winning streak to the mound was impeccably sharp for seven innings. He struck out a career-high 13, part of a season-high 17 strikeouts for both Nationals batters and Braves pitchers.
But watching the ferociousness with which Bryce Harper uncorked his 19th home run swing of the season on Kris Medlen’s first pitch of the sixth inning, there was a glimmer of hope that they could perhaps solve him. And as the ball sailed over the left field fence to erase a one-run lead by the Braves, for a moment the air was sucked out of Turner Field.
The chopping stopped. And the idea that this could be the end of a drive for the divisional crown seemed to creep into the minds of the 41,797 announced to be in attendance.
On a night when the Nationals scattered just five total hits, Harper's homer wasn't enough. Their other four hits were left on the bases harmlessly and their late-inning attempts were thwarted. They were blown away by Craig Kimbrel in the top of the ninth and they never got another shot.
They’ll still arrive at the ballpark on Saturday for the first of two nationally televised games — one they’ll enter with a commanding divisional lead and mere inches from a playoff berth. Those were the reminders that made Friday night’s loss easier to stomach, and to refocus toward the future.
"You play all season to build up that (7 ½-game) lead, and we're right in the thick of it right now," Werth said. "We've got a nice little cushion, but we’ve got all playoff teams the rest of the way. We're going to be tested, but I think we're ready for that test, I really do.
"I think probably the last two weeks you can really tell a difference in this team. We're a championship-caliber ball club. I like where we're at."
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