Braves' tight victory a fitting opener vs. rival Nats
Benefited by challenge, clutch relief, Atlanta continues winning trend
WASHINGTON -- Following a script similar to the one that led them to the National League East title last year, the Braves manufactured yet another one-run win over the Nationals with the help of their stellar bullpen. But this time, they also received some assistance from Major League Baseball's expanded instant replay system.
Chris Johnson delivered the decisive sacrifice fly and David Carpenter produced an impressive eighth-inning escape act in front of a raucous crowd that filled Nationals Park to celebrate Washington's home opener on Friday afternoon. But these served as just two of the key contributions the Braves received on the way to claiming an eventful 2-1 win over the Nationals.
"We've got [18 more games against the Nationals]," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "I think there will be a lot more like these. I know there have been in the last couple of years. There's no reason to change now."
Ten of the past 17 games played between these two NL East rivals have been decided by one run. The Braves have won seven of these 10 contests and 14 of the 20 games played against the Nationals dating back to the beginning of the 2013 season.
Much of this recent success can be attributed to the Braves' bullpen, which has compiled a 1.70 ERA in these past 20 games against the Nationals. This impressive mark was improved with the shutdown performances provided by Carpenter and Craig Kimbrel, who recorded a pair of strikeouts in a perfect ninth inning.
"Every win you can get in the division is going to be big," Carpenter said. "None of these games are taken lightly. You're trying to go out there for 162 [games] and grind them out."
Like Nationals starter Jordan Zimmmerman, Braves starting pitcher David Hale overcame the stomach bug that weakened him the previous couple of days and set the tone for this pitchers' duel with five stellar innings. The Braves gained a lead with Evan Gattis' fifth-inning solo home run off Zimmermann, and the Nationals tied the game with Ryan Zimmerman's sixth-inning sacrifice fly against Gus Schlosser.
Nationals reliever Tyler Clippard paid the price in the eighth inning, when he issued a leadoff walk to Jason Heyward, who raced to third base on Freddie Freeman's one-out single and then trotted home when Johnson lofted his game-winning sacrifice fly to right field.
"It's Relieving 101," Clippard said. "You don't walk the leadoff guy, especially during a tied ballgame like that. That's what ultimately got me. [The pitch to Johnson] was a fastball away. He just bobbed it up. It was one of those weird baseball things. If it was 10 feet in, [Jayson Werth] might have thrown him out."
The Nationals opened the bottom half of the eighth with a single by Anthony Rendon and a walk to Werth. But after getting himself in trouble, Carpenter escaped in authoritative fashion courtesy of three consecutive strikeouts against Adam LaRoche, Zimmerman and Bryce Harper.
"We've got to battle," Johnson said. "We've got to show we can win a ballgame that way. We did that."
Zimmermann, whose season debut was pushed back one day to allow him to recover from the flu, notched nine strikeouts and limited the Braves to one run on four hits. Atlanta had produced just two hits before Gattis opened the fifth inning by belting a fastball into the left-center-field seats.
Gattis' long solo shot accounted for his second hit of the young season and more importantly provided a lead for Hale, who scattered five hits and had the expanded instant replay system to thank for the fact that he did not allow a run in the five innings that encompassed his third career start.
"I was surprised I felt as good as I did after a couple days ago," said Hale, who battled a stomach virus on Wednesday and then recovered during Thursday's off-day.
Hale certainly felt much better after the replay review overturned the initial ruling that Ian Desmond recorded an inside-the-park home run after his fifth-inning line drive bounced in fair territory and nestled under the padding of the outfield wall located just to the left of the left-field foul pole. The review led to Desmond being awarded a ground-rule double instead.
Braves left fielder Justin Upton complicated the unusual situation when he raised his arms to alert the umpires and then panicked by picking the ball out of the wall. His decision to do so prevented third-base umpire Marvin Hudson from getting out to the wall in time to inspect whether the ball was indeed under the padding.
"The next time it happens, if I'm 100 percent sure like I was, I will stand there and make sure they come out and see it," Upton said.
After being sent back out to second base, Desmond took off to steal third base and was caught in a rundown. Three innings earlier, the Braves had negated Harper's attempt to steal second base with a pitchout.
Hale, who has allowed one run in the 16 innings that he's compiled in his first three career starts, also benefited from Nationals third-base coach Bob Henley's unwise decision to have LaRoche attempt to score from first base on Zimmerman's fourth-inning double to left-center field. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons received Upton's relay throw and fired a perfect strike to Gattis, who was waiting to apply the tag when LaRoche eventually reached home plate.
"We did a lot of nice things fundamentally [sound]," Gonzalez said. "We wiggled out of a lot of situations. We played good defense and made some good pitches when we had to."