The Nationals’ lead at the top of the National League East has remained steady all season, but manager Dusty Baker realizes the importance of going into the All-Star break with a stranglehold over the division.
“We have to win these next three,” Baker said before Friday’s home game against the Atlanta Braves. “I’d love to be double digits heading into the break. … The good thing is, if we play our game, we won’t have to worry who is behind us in the first place.”
The Nationals’ game, apparently, includes more-than-the-occasional walk-off.
Daniel Murphy had an RBI single to give the Nationals their seventh walk-off of the season and a 5-4 win over the Braves in the 10th inning. With the win, the Nationals’ lead in the NL East is now nine-and-a-half games.
“That was a two-game game,” Baker said. “Because if we lost that game, we would’ve been 7 (ahead) instead of 9. We’ve got two games to go, and hopefully we can extend this lead and take a break. We’ve had that happen to us many, many times. We’ve done that to a few teams as well, but people seem to forget the times that we do it and just remember the times they do it to us.”
Washington (51-35) needed a late push to get the game to extras.
Catcher Matt Wieters tied the game at four with a RBI sac-fly that was part of a three-run rally during the bottom of the ninth.
The inning started when Daniel Murphy blasted a single into right field to score Bryce Harper to make it 4-2. Anthony Rendon immediately added another run with an RBI single, scoring Ryan Zimmerman.
The Nationals suddenly found the offensive firepower that had been dormant throughout the night. Prior to the ninth, they had just one run and Braves pitcher R.A. Dickey carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning.
Washington has maintained such a lead in the NL East, in part, because of the deep bench. Shortstop Adrian Sanchez helped Murphy get the RBI after he led off the tenth with the first hit of his major league career. Sanchez advanced to third on a Zimmerman single and then came home on Murphy’s RBI.
“At first it didn’t cross my mind until I was actually on base and then it kind of fell on me that it was my first big league hit,” Sanchez said. “In the moment I just wanted to find a way to get on base. … The guy’s were very, very excited and they poured a little bit of powder on me (after the game.)”
Friday’s game took an odd turn considering the type of rhythm starter Max Scherzer found himself in early.
Scherzer retired nine straight to start the game and for a moment, it appeared that a no-hitter was a realistic possibility. The Braves, however, had other ideas — with leadoff man Ender Inciarte doubling to start the fourth. Soon after, Brandon Phillips had an RBI single to score Inciarte.
More complexing for the Nationals was the success of Dickey, who had a 4.44 ERA entering the game.
The Nationals eventually broke Dickey’s no-hitter when shortstop Stephen Drew had a double to start the bottom of the sixth inning. They then tied the game with an RBI single from Wieters, but Scherzer proceeded to give up a home run to Freddie Freeman in the seventh.
Baker, though, elected to keep Scherzer out until there was one out remaining in the eighth inning.
Scherzer had another strong outing, throwing 120 pitches, 85 of which were strikes. He had 10 strikeouts, the 11th time he has reached double-digit strikeouts this season. He only allowed six hits and walked just one batter.
But Scherzer couldn’t make it through the eighth. He had an 0-2 count on Inciarte, but ended up walking him. Phillips followed with a single and Baker went to retrieve Scherzer.
Scherzer’s replacement, however, wasn’t able to contain the damage. Reliever Oliver Perez gave up a two-RBI single to Freeman to make it 4-1 for the Braves.
In the top of the tenth, reliever Matt Albers came in for Matt Grace and got the Nationals out of a jam with two men on base. Albers set up a double play ball, which the Nationals converted.
“We’re not really worried about how big the lead is (in the division),” Wieters said. “It’s about playing as well as we can, finishing these last two games strong, then we know it’ll be a dogfight in the second half.”
• Matthew Paras can be reached at email@example.com.
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