ATLANTA -- If this past weekend’s four-game series was any indication, the remaining nine games between the Nationals and Braves are going to provide some compelling TV as Atlanta attempts to hold off Washington’s charge in the National League East.
For about two months, the Nationals have been the hottest team in baseball, and yet they have had trouble closing the gap on the first-place Braves. The Nats had a chance to cut into the division lead this weekend, but only managed to split this four-game series after dropping Sunday night’s series finale, 7-1, at SunTrust Park.
Washington heads back to D.C. trailing the Braves by 6 1/2 games, but with another three-game set against Atlanta coming up from July 29-31 at Nationals Park.
“Four-game series are tough,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “As far as having to win three of four or four of four, you're not going to make up 5 1/2 or 6 1/2 games in one week. You just have to keep playing like we've been playing.”
Washington is now 5-4 against Atlanta this season, sweeping a two-game series here in May, losing two of three in D.C. last month and then splitting the four games this weekend.
Just like the Nats came away with a blowout win in the first game of the series on Thursday, the Braves won handily in Sunday’s finale. Before the game got out of hand, though, Joe Ross gave the Nats a solid outing, settling down from some early trouble to hold the Braves to three runs in 5 1/3 innings after being called up to make a spot start.
Braves starter Kevin Gausman pitched into the eighth inning, however, and dominated Washington for seven-plus innings of one-run ball. It tagged Ross with a loss, the first loss taken by a Nationals starting pitcher since June 15 against the D-backs, a streak of 27 games that tied the record set by the 1916 New York Giants, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Washington starters were 16-0 with a 2.55 ERA during that span.
“Our starters give us a chance to stay in just about every game that we’re in,” general manager Mike Rizzo said prior to the series finale. “That was our plan going into it, to run a starting pitcher out there every day to give us a chance to win, and I think they’ve done that as good as anybody.”
But throughout the weekend, the Nationals all raved about the atmosphere at SunTrust Park -- Saturday’s game was played in front of the second-largest crowd in the history of the stadium -- and the intensity of the games. Manager Dave Martinez spoke about the energy in the dugout, with guys chanting and staying engaged in tight games. Sean Doolittle said the atmosphere Saturday almost reminded him of a do-or-die game.
The Nats might lament a missed opportunity Sunday to have pulled even closer in the division, but this weekend showed just how evenly matched these two teams appear to be going down the stretch.
“I guess, after the series, two is pretty good,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “But at the same time, we had a chance to definitely win three of them, if not all four. … But at the same time, they are a really good team. Still got some ground to make up. A lot of baseball left.”