- The Washington Times - Monday, September 15, 2014

ATLANTA — Yellow pennants above the left-field stands in Turner Field outline the long success of the Atlanta Braves. The faux flags highlight multiple division titles during the 2000s in particular, one noting the Braves as National League East division champions in 2013.

Below, unoccupied blue seats told the story of this season. The large stadium was near-empty, quiet and dejected Monday evening. That’s because the Nationals are a night away from winning the division.

A crisp Stephen Strasburg and four runs were enough to bring the Nationals to the brink following a 4-2 win before 18,220 half-interested and sporadically rained on fans.

Tanner Roark (13-10, 2.96 ERA) will walk to the mound Tuesday night with a chance to clinch the division. The Nationals have won 86 games, matching their total from last season which left them in second place behind the perennial Braves. Their division lead is a season-high 11.5 games. Their magic number is two. The division title could be hours away.

“We’re close,” Wilson Ramos said. “Feel excited.”

There was one hiccup for the Nationals in the muggy Atlanta evening. Bryce Harper was replaced in the fourth inning after feeling light-headed. Harper had struck out and made one putout in left field before being replaced by Nate Schierholtz.

Manager Matt Williams said Harper came off the field after the third inning and said he didn’t feel well. Postgame, Williams thought Harper may have the flu that has been going around the Nationals‘ clubhouse.

“At this point in the season, we’re certainly not pushing that,” Williams said.

Otherwise, almost every part of the evening showed the Nationals‘ status, and that of the freefalling Braves. Strasburg pitched seven innings on 90 pitches after consecutive starts where he lasted just six innings. He even knocked in a run, his second of the season, forcing an Atlanta pitching change.

He also cracked 200 innings for the season, a first in his career steeped in potential and not duration.

“It’s important for him to understand that he can be that horse,” Williams said.

Strasburg’s personal nemesis, Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman, hit a single to right field in his first at-bat. That pushed him to 12-for-26 in his career against Strasburg. By the time the sixth inning ended, Freeman had two strikeouts in his next two at-bats, the latter of which causing him to slam his bat in disgust just outside of the batter’s box following a called third strike. He was ejected. Moments later, his manager, Fredi Gonzalez, was also removed from the game by homeplate umpire Tim Timmons.

The Braves are at .500, 75-75, drifting further and further from the Wild Card. The last time Atlanta was .500? April 1, they were 1-1.

The Nationals beat Atlanta starter Ervin Santana for the second time in less than a week. After walking four and allowing eight hits in five innings Sept. 9 in D.C., a more under control Santana showed up Monday. He struck out four of the first six before walking Ramos to leadoff the third inning. Denard Span’s two-out double scored Ramos and gave the Nationals a 1-0 lead.

Ramos pushed the lead to 2-0 in the fifth inning with his 11th home run of the season. A single to center by Strasburg in the seventh drove in Asdrubal Cabrera. Schierholtz’s eighth-inning single scored Ian Desmond.

However, Rafael Soriano’s tenuous late-season pitching continued. He allowed two doubles, a walk and was hit with two earned runs before being removed. Drew Storen allowed a hit before picking up a one-out save with two runners on to conclude the wobbling ninth inning.

“The important thing is just getting the job done,” Storen said. “It doesn’t have to be pretty.”

The pregame preparation will be different Tuesday for Williams‘ day-by-day Nationals. Williams is loathe to look past the day he resides in, but plans for hiding the bubbly pregame and covering the eyes postgame will have to be made.

After that, a lot more planning may have to come.

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