ATLANTA — There’s something about these games between the Nationals and Braves, something that elevates them from mere afterthoughts in a 162-game season into epic clashes with twists and turns and oddities that just don’t seem to happen against any other opponent.
There’s also something about the most-common result of these nip-and-tuck games: The Braves keep winning them.
Friday night’s 7-6, 10-inning affair at Turner Field was only the latest (and possibly wackiest) in this ongoing rivalry, which for the last season-plus has tilted considerably in Atlanta’s direction. This was the 14th 1-run game in the last 27 meetings between these two clubs, with 10 of those 14 games won by the Braves.
Fluke occurrence, or is there something more to this trend?
“I don’t know if it’s fluke,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “They’re two good teams. Unfortunately they’ve come out on top quite a bit the last year-and-a-half. It’s our job to try and figure out a way to change that.”
To date, the Nationals haven’t been able to do that. Oh, they put up a colossal fight Friday night, battling back from an early 4-0 deficit to take a 6-5 lead late, only to watch as Tyler Clippard gave up the tying run in the eighth and Jerry Blevins surrendered the winning run in the 10th.
And that’s to say nothing of the wackiness that ensued during the 3 hours and 49 minutes that preceded Justin Upton’s game-winning, bloop single to right. This game featured three stoppages for potential managerial challenges (though only one actual challenge), an umpire (Angel Hernandez) falling to the ground after getting struck by a line drive, a Nationals player (Denard Span) falling to the ground after getting bowled over by a Brave (Dan Uggla) and Adam LaRoche trying to score on a wild pitch … from second base.
And then the game was decided when Atlanta pinch-runner Jordan Schafer scored all the way from first base on Upton’s bloop base hit, a sequence that was ripe for second-guessing.
Just prior to the game-winning hit, Blevins made three consecutive pickoff attempts, none of them close to getting Schafer, each of them only encouraging the speedy outfielder to attempt to steal once Blevins did finally throw a pitch. Sure enough, he bolted right after that.
“They put him in the game to steal second base right there,” said manager Matt Williams, who called for the pickoffs from the dugout. “We just want to try to prevent that as much as possible. And it ended up that the ball he hit, he was going anyway. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”
As Schafer took off for second base, so too did Anthony Rendon, assuming he’d be receiving a throw from catcher Jose Lobaton. Except Upton popped up Blevins’ 2-2 pitch into shallow right field. With Rendon covering and Bryce Harper (who just replaced an injured Jayson Werth in right field) playing deep in a no-doubles alignment, the ball wound up being perfectly placed, out of reach from both fielders.
Would Rendon have had a shot at the play had he been in his normal position?
“I don’t know,” he said. “It was slicing. Running from second base, I felt like I was running forever. It was just one of those situations.”
The Nationals might still have had a shot, except Harper couldn’t get a hold of the ball as he came charging in, allowing Schafer to score the game-winning run without drawing a throw. Thus, Schafer scored from first base on a single.
“The first instinct it to try to get them to make weak contact, so it was a success there,” Blevins said. “But baseball is pretty crazy. Sometimes they fall. Sometimes they don’t.”
True enough. It just seems like they always fall in for hits when it’s the Braves at the plate and the Nationals in the field.
And that continues to eat at the players inside the visiting clubhouse at Turner Field, who can’t figure out why they haven’t been able to win more of these head-to-head showdowns.
“I think the thing that stings is that they’ve been beating us these last few years,” Clippard said. “That’s kinda what it comes down to. It’s just the competitive side of it. When you play these close games, you want to win them, and especially against these guys, they seem to have been coming out on top. And that’s what’s frustrating. That’s pretty much what it comes down to. Obviously, they’re a good team, and we feel like we’re the top two teams in the division. To lose to them, it’s always frustrating.”