On an afternoon that felt like a turning point, facing a game that seemed far more important than just one of 162, the Nationals scraped together a win — and they did it without a hobbled Bryce Harper and with a struggling Gio Gonzalez, who won for the first time since May.
For now, the third-place Nationals remain relevant in the crowded National League East race, forging a 6-3 victory over the second-place Atlanta Braves with some strong outfield defense and a balanced offensive attack led by Harper’s replacement in the outfield, outfielder Michael A. Taylor, who hit a homer for the first time since June 2.
The Nationals earned a split in the four-game series at Nationals Park, and head off for a seven-game road trip against a pair of playoff contenders in the Chicago Cubs (66-48) and St. Louis Cardinals (60-55).
“Big win for us. Get on the plane, happy flight (to Chicago),” said manager Dave Martinez, who made his big league debut with the Cubs in 1986. “We have to dig in and get ready to play Chicago.”
“It’s big,” Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton said. “A difficult road trip (starts Friday).”
Washington has not won a series on the road against a team with a winning record since sweeping four games in Arizona in early May. Now they head to the Midwest after a much-needed win over the Braves, who could have severely crippled the Nationals’ recent momentum with a victory.
“We want to win (each) series from here on out,” said catcher Matt Wieters, who tagged out Freddie Freeman in the third to prevent the Braves from taking a 2-0 lead. “Our only chance (today) was to get a split out of this four-game set. We are going to play like we need it, especially against a team that is ahead of us in the standings.”
The Nationals end their homestand 7-3 with series wins over the New York Mets and Cincinnati Reds — their first back-to-back series victories in more than two months.
The Nationals (59-56) are now 51/2 games back of the first-place Phillies (64-50), who were off Thursday, and 41/2 games behind the Braves (62-50).
Gonzalez said he was happy to finally hear the winning music in the clubhouse.
“Everyone did a great job today,” said Gonzalez, who allowed one run in seven innings. “Everyone made great plays. I can’t stress enough how Wieters did behind the plate. I think I have the best command when I don’t have to think. Credit the big guy behind the plate. He made it less stressful.”
Gonzalez lasted seven innings for just the second time in 11 starts.
“That was awesome,” Martinez said. “He picked us up today. He kept us in the game.”
Taylor hit a homer and also had an outfield assist, as did Eaton.
“Michael is Michael,” Martinez said. “I have said this before: he is a Gold Glove. He had a good day. We have to find ways to get him in there.”
The Nationals got a break as Atlanta starter Anibal Sanchez, 10-1 in his career against Washington, had to leave after two innings due to a left calf contusion. It was the second time in four games in the series Atlanta got only two innings out of a starting pitcher.
“It looked like Anibal was going to have one of his games starting out,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He was sharp as can be. We just had a hard time getting ahold of Gio. That was the biggest thing. We couldn’t do anything with him. When you figure with these four games, we had two starters go [a combined] four innings, that’s the best you can hope for, probably.”
The Nationals certainly would have liked to have done better than a split. But with Harper expected to return and Jeremy Hellickson ready to pitch Friday against the Cubs, the defending two-time division champs should feel fortunate as they head west.
“Tomorrow we go out there and we have Jeremy on the mound,” Gonzalez said. “I feel confident he will pound the strike zone and give us seven great innings.”