Mathematicians will say the Washington Nationals can’t clinch the NL East until next week. Practicality says they essentially wrapped it up Tuesday night when they sent nine hitters to the plate against Ervin Santana in the first inning of another win over the Atlanta Braves.
The Nationals beat their division nemesis for the second time in two nights, winning 6-4 to push their lead to nine games with 19 to play. Atlanta had been a thorn in Washington’s plans for about a year and a half, but the Nationals have put the kibosh on that trend by winning five of the last seven meetings.
“It feels like we’re just that much closer,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “Not to take anything for granted until this thing is sewn up, but these are big. This time of year, playing the team chasing you, to be able to win a couple.”
LaRoche kept up his torrid stretch with two hits and two RBIs, and Jordan Zimmermann (11-5) allowed four runs (two earned) with seven strikeouts and no walks in six innings. Zimmermann hasn’t lost a decision since July 11 and is 5-0 — and the Nationals are 8-0 — in his last eight starts.
LaRoche is 9-for-19 with four home runs and 12 RBIs in his last six games, a run that started when he overcame back and elbow injuries and a stomach virus to punch in five RBIs as a late sub against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
He singled in a run off Santana (14-8) in the Nationals’ four-run first inning and added another RBI single in the second. Both were hitting works of art: He held back just enough to get the end of the bat on a high changeup and poke a soft line drive up the middle, and lifted a low two-strike changeup into a line-drive hit to right.
Yet LaRoche says he isn’t really in his best groove.
“You know, it feels good; it doesn’t feel great,” he said. “I don’t know how to explain that, other than just from experience. I know when it feels really good, but again, it feels good. I feel like I’m slowing things down, going a little deeper in counts and getting some pitches to hit.”
Santana settled down somewhat after his long first inning and stuck around through five. He gave up five runs, eight hits and four walks to fall to 7-2 since the All-Star break for the Braves, who remain in a crowded race for a wild card berth.
“You can’t fully give up. We still have a chance,” Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “Once we’re fully eliminated from the division race, then we’ll worry about the wild card.”
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