ATLANTA -- As the Braves surged to the top of the National League East during the past month, the Nationals have certainly noticed the arrival of their young and talented division rivals. However, the Nats insist they have kept the focus on themselves, and that if they continue to play
ATLANTA -- As the Braves surged to the top of the National League East during the past month, the Nationals have certainly noticed the arrival of their young and talented division rivals. However, the Nats insist they have kept the focus on themselves, and that if they continue to play well and get healthy, there is no reason why they will not win the division once again.
Perhaps this weekend's four-game series can serve as a measuring stick for both teams, as the Braves snapped Washington's six-game winning streak and took back first place with a 4-2 victory on Thursday night at SunTrust Park.
"They're the team we're competing with right now at the top of the division," Washington shortstop Trea Turner said. "Obviously, you want to win those games. You don't want to give them three, four games in a series then have to crawl up from behind. But I think we just have to keep doing what we're doing. We played good baseball."
The Nationals did not play their cleanest game on Thursday night as both teams traded runs early in the game. Anthony Rendon drove in a pair, on a sac fly in the first and a single in the third, but the team missed opportunities for more runs. The Nats also gifted the Braves a run in the third inning after a single by Ozzie Albies fell between Turner and Juan Soto in left field.
Turner took the blame for the play, saying he did not realize how deep Soto was playing in the outfield, and the Braves immediately made Washington pay with a double from Freddie Freeman that coupled with a throwing error from Bryce Harper to put Atlanta ahead to stay.
"I always say this: Little things," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "Those things hurt when you're playing other teams, giving 28-29 outs."
Tanner Roark navigated in and out of trouble all game, and although he did a good job of limiting the damage, the difference came when Braves left-hander Sean Newcomb settled in. Newcomb threw seven innings of two-run ball and retired 14 of the final 15 batters he faced. The Nats' offense managed just two baserunners after the third inning, while Atlanta continued to pressure Roark, who issued five walks and allowed four runs on seven hits over 6 2/3 innings.
"They can swing it. Hats off to them," Roark said. "They put together good at-bats and didn't chase much. I've just got to be more efficient and consistent in the strike zone, get ahead of guys and stuff like that."
Despite the loss, the Nats completed their best May in team history, during which they collected 19 wins (trailing their 20-win month in June 2005 as the winningest month in team history) to place themselves back firmly in the mix in the division.
"We haven't been blowing anybody out, but we've been playing good enough baseball to win close games and I think that plays late in the year," Turner said. "That plays in the postseason. So if we can continue to do what we did in the last six, seven games, be consistent and be in each and every game, then I think we'll be all right."
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Soto made a diving catch to end the second inning and save at least one run. He had to cover 51 feet in 3.5 seconds for a 38-percent catch probability, according to Statcast™, which rated the play as a four-star catch.
HE SAID IT
"I think when you're young, you play with a lot of confidence. You don't let things get to you as quickly. You still haven't figured out what bothers you or what pressure is, whatever it may be. I think that energy is something younger guys bring. For me, I think that's what I see. They have some confident players over there, then they have some really good players. Their veterans are playing unbelievable -- [Nick] Markakis, [Freddie] Freeman and [Ender] Inciarte were good tonight. They have the younger guys to go with it. They're tough." -- Turner, on the Braves
Stephen Strasburg has faced no team in the Majors more frequently than the Braves, and Friday night's game will mark the 29th time in his career he will take the mound against Atlanta. Facing his division rivals on April 10, Strasburg tossed eight shutout innings with eight strikeouts. Atlanta will counter with Mike Foltynewicz. First pitch is set for 7:35 p.m. ET.
Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.