Lead in NL East now at six games after win
Once upon a time Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Tim Hudson owned the Nationals lock, stock and barrel. Seeing his name on the schedule would elicit a sigh and the gritting of teeth. But not this season apparently.
For the third time this year Washington greeted Hudson with a four-run first inning. That early lead didn't hold up as Atlanta found a way to solve Nats pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, too. But with the game still tied in the 13th inning, a hard grounder to second base by veteran pinch hitter Chad Tracy was bobbled by Dan Uggla, who froze as Danny Espinosa scored the winning run from third base in a 5-4 victory.
That gave Washington (76-46) another game in the standings to start a critical three-game series between the two teams as they vie for the National League East title. The Braves (70-52) have lost three in a row and fell six games behind the Nats, who have won 13 of their last 16.
"Both teams used their bullpens and probably won't be so fresh [Tuesday]," Tracy said. "Knowing we're six games up, we come out and play our game knowing we can't be more than four back, it's huge. They know that, too. They were looking to come in here and try to do some damage and walk away with their heads held high and hopefully now they can't."
Hudson actually settled down after that rough first. He gave up a leadoff double to Jayson Werth and an RBI single to rookie Bryce Harper, who later scored on an RBI groundout by Adam LaRoche. Ian Desmond then recorded his first hit since coming off the disabled list Friday, a monster two-run home run to left field.
That made it 4-1 Washington. But other than three Hudson walks over the ensuing four innings, the offense struggled. Hudson finally gave up a leadoff single in the sixth and walked Desmond. But he responded by striking out Danny Espinosa swinging, getting Kurt Suzuki to fly out to center and then firing a wicked sinking fastball that overmatched Roger Bernadina for a called third strike to end the threat.
It was a nice comeback, but in his three starts against the Nats this season Hudson has allowed 16 earned runs in 182Ú3 innings with 22 hits and eight walks. But if he no longer maintains mastery of Washington, it was good enough Monday to at least give his club a chance to win it anyway.
Atlanta opened the scoring with an RBI hit from Jason Heyward off Zimmermann in the first inning. An infield hit in the fourth by Paul Janish pushed across a second run. Heyward then tied the game in the fifth with a homer over the wall in right to tie the game at 4-4. Zimmermann, who entered the game with a 2.38 ERA, lasted just five innings.
"A lot of things happened in that game," Zimmermann said. "The bullpen did a great job. I kind of crushed them. We used everyone. This is a bad outing by me. I'm glad we got the win."
Both bullpens worked hard to strand runners on base in the late innings. Ryan Mattheus walked the leadoff batter in the seventh for Washington but induced a double play from Braves veteran Chipper Jones. Drew Storen then helped the Nats' cause in the eighth despite a leadoff single, a stolen base and a walk by Atlanta that put two runners on with two out. Martin Prado fouled out to Suzuki behind home plate to end that threat. Sean Burnett gave up a pair of singles in the ninth but struck out Dan Uggla looking and had Brian McCann pop out to first. Michael Gonzalez retired three in a row after a leadoff double by Prado in the 11th. Craig Stammen, the last man in the bullpen, then came on to retire six of the seven batters he faced in the 12th and 13th - and had to plan on pitching a lot longer, if necessary. His teammates made sure it wasn't.
"I think there was a little bit of a more-important feel to this game," Stammen said. "A lot of us have never played in an important baseball game since like college or high school or maybe the minor leagues. So I think it's important to get a little nervous or anxious, a little more adrenaline going on."