- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 10, 2014

As the shadows turned to darkness at Nationals Park on Wednesday, the Washington Nationals packed their bags in a cluttered clubhouse, the homestand behind them and an 11-game road trip ahead.

They had arrived earlier in the afternoon with a chance to do something they had not done since Aug. 31, 2008: sweep the Atlanta Braves at home. And though that goal once again eluded them with a 6-2 loss in the series finale, they changed into shirts and ties and rolled their suitcases down the hall knowing they are in a better position after this series than they were before it began.

“We knew that in order to win this division, we’ve got to beat them,” center fielder Denard Span said. “We did what we wanted to do, which was win the series against them, and we’re sitting pretty good.”

Stephen Strasburg’s excellent start devolved into mediocrity Wednesday and the Braves proceeded to beat up Washington’s bullpen, which featured a scoreless eighth inning from Rafael Soriano in his first appearance since being tentatively removed from the closer’s role.

Meanwhile, Ian Desmond was out of the lineup with a tight back. Anthony Rendon was quarantined in the back of the clubhouse, sleeping and gulping down fluids in an effort to ward off a stomach bug.

But amidst those negatives, there were significant positives. A series victory over their closest rival. An eight-game lead in the National League East with 18 games remaining. A magic number (10) that can be counted on two hands. And the possibility of clinching and celebrating a division title next week, during a three-game swing in Atlanta.

“We still just take it one game at a time,” Span said. “If it happens [in Atlanta], if it happens before, if it happens after — as long as it happens, it really doesn’t matter where.”

Kevin Frandsen, who started in Rendon’s place at third base, was one of the lone bright spots for Washington. He went 3-for-4 at the plate with three singles and also made a highlight-worthy play at third base, barehanding a chopper and throwing out Christian Bethancourt at first base in one fluid motion to end the fourth inning. Bryce Harper also crushed a homer to right field off formidable closer Craig Kimbrel in the ninth.

Before that, the Nationals had to deal not only with starter Aaron Harang, who has given them problems all year, but also with the shadows that draped the infield. They struck out six times against Harang in the first five innings, the result of his effectiveness and a glare from the plate.

“It’s pretty brutal for the first three or four innings,” Harper said. “It’s definitely pitcher’s advantage, but we’ve got to get used to it a little bit.”

The shadows worked both ways, however, also likely helping Strasburg start strong. He limited the Braves to one hit in the first two innings with three strikeouts, but slowly unraveled as the evening went on.

In the fifth, B.J. Upton hit a solo home run on the first pitch of the inning. In the sixth, Strasburg allowed two doubles, two singles and one wild pitch, resulting in a total of two runs before he finally escaped the inning and exited the game. In total, he allowed seven hits and three earned runs over six innings, albeit with eight strikeouts and no walks.

“I felt great out there. I felt like I was hitting my spots,” he said. “Just a couple hits just out of our reach, and they won the ballgame.”

A slim lead quickly grew upon Strasburg’s departure. Jerry Blevins allowed two singles, a walk and a sacrifice fly to begin the seventh before Ryan Mattheus entered and promptly allowed a bases-clearing double.

The Nationals trailed by five runs entering in the eighth and, for the first time since Friday night’s loss to Philadelphia, Matt Williams decided to hand the ball to Soriano. He jogged to the mound to a smattering of light applause and a few stray boos, but left without giving up a run.

“The mechanical stuff he’s working on was much better today,” Williams said, before being asked how he would use Soriano moving forward. “We’ll see how the games play out, who’s available, who isn’t. And continue to do what we’re doing.”

Throughout his postgame press conference, Williams always wound back to that common theme: focusing on the present and not looking too far into the future. Down the hall, players echoed that sentiment.

“[Williams] makes it a lot easier,” Desmond said. “He’s really focused on one day at a time, and we feed off that. That’s pretty much how it goes. You follow the leader.”

That task will become increasingly difficult as the Nationals move closer to clinching the division. They will then have to ponder a new set of questions as they approach the postseason: whether to rest starting position players, limit pitch counts or alter the starting rotation. Or keep rolling and make a push for home-field advantage and possibly the top seed in the NL.

Williams is not ready to go there.

“We absolutely refuse. We just absolutely refuse to go there,” he said. “Tomorrow’s the most important game, and we have to think about that. It’s true. It’s boring, but it’s really true. Because if you get ahead of yourself, you’re doing yourself no good. We just refuse to go there.”

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