As the ball went screaming off Anthony Rendon’s bat and soared toward the bullpen in deep left-center field, anything seemed possible, from the Nationals’ standpoint, for the first time in a long time.
What’s that about this team’s mental hurdle trying to beat the Braves? How about a game-tying, 2-out, bottom-of-the-ninth homer off Craig Kimbrel to cure all that ails the Nats?
“Especially the timing of it,” teammate Adam LaRoche said, “coming against this team that we’ve had so much trouble with. You go from realistically knowing there in the ninth it’s going to be tough to get this one, with the best closer in the game on the mound. And you tie it up. It’s a pretty good feeling after that, that we’re going to win it.”
So the stage was set for the Nationals to exorcise their ever-growing Atlanta demons, winning a game in dramatic fashion to retain their position atop the NL East. The only problem: They couldn’t push across the actual winning run before ultimately giving it up in the 13th inning, allowing a potentially season-changing victory to devolve instead to as demoralizing a loss as they’ve suffered all year.
Final score: Braves 6, Nats 4. Say hello to second place again, thanks to the 20th loss in 27 games against Atlanta.
“This game changes on one swing sometimes,” manager Matt Williams said. “That could’ve been the one swing. It turned out it wasn’t.”
Lifeless at the plate for most of the night, the Nationals gave themselves one last shot in the bottom of the ninth against the almighty Kimbrel. Pinch-hitter Nate McLouth drew a leadoff walk, then after Greg Dobbs and Denard Span popped out, Rendon stepped up as his team’s last hope. The second-year infielder worked the count to 2-1, then turned on Kimbrel’s 98 mph fastball and sent it flying to deep left-center.
“Just try to see the ball, try not to do too much,” Rendon said of his approach against the fearsome Kimbrel. “He’s going to supply all the power. He throws 100 mph. He throws pretty hard. He’s a phenomenal pitcher. I just tried to barrel it.”
After a slight delay while the play was reviewed in New York, Rendon was officially awarded his home run, sending the crowd of 36,608 into a frenzy and leaving the Braves downright stunned.
But as inspiring as that moment was, it wouldn’t do much good if the Nationals couldn’t finish off the victory. They couldn’t do it against Kimbrel in the ninth, then they couldn’t do it in the 10th, 11th or 12th innings against a trio of Atlanta relievers, two of them making their major-league debuts.
The Nationals’ bullpen had already done yeoman’s work to keep the game knotted at 4, with Drew Storen, Craig Stammen, Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard and Jerry Blevins combining to toss six scoreless innings, retiring 18 consecutive batters at one point.
And then fatigue set in. With rookie Aaron Barrett unavailable after pitching the previous three nights, and with long man Ross Detwiler available only in an emergency after throwing 45 pitches two nights earlier, Williams had no choice but to send Blevins back to the mound for a second inning of work.
The veteran lefty, who himself had thrown 18 pitches the night before, immediately got into trouble in the 13th, walking leadoff man B.J. Upton. “That’s the one that gets me the most, the leadoff walk to Upton,” he said. “You can’t do that.”
Freddie Freeman followed with a single, then Evan Gattis delivered the base hit to left that brought home the eventual winning run. A botched double-play attempt later in the inning let an insurance run home and left the Nationals trailing by 2.
“Everybody’s tired,” Blevins said. “We’re in the 13th inning. Their guys have been going the whole time, our guys have. You’ve just got to step up. I didn’t get the job done. I gave up a couple runs, didn’t get the job done.”
The Nationals’ final shot at extending the game ended quickly, with Jordan Walden retiring the side in the bottom of the 13th, and so this team trudged off the field after yet another loss to the Braves. They’ve experienced this so many times in the last 1 1/2 years, yet this one stung as much as any that came before it.
“We came back against one of the best closers in the game to tie the game,” Williams said. “Had an opportunity, but we lost it. But (I’m) proud of them for fighting back, staying in it and giving ourselves an opportunity. … It’s no fun to lose. Nobody wants to lose. But we’ve got two more against these guys and a whole bunch of games left. So we have to have short memories.”