Roark impresses with dominant start
The Nationals entered Tuesday’s doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves with a unique range of potential outcomes.
Anytime you play two against a team in one day it’s possible to double up or come away with two quick defeats. But in this particular case, two losses would mean a NL East division crown for the Braves. Atlanta would clinch the division and overtake the defending champs right before their very eyes.
That possibility was something the Nats had considered, and they were determined to prevent it from happening.
“We definitely didn’t want to see that,” Denard Span said. “We didn’t want to see them jumping around on our field. They can do that somewhere else, not here in Washington.”
On a day that began with players reflecting on Monday's tragic events at the nearby Navy Yard - and that saw them wear special U.S. Navy ballcaps during batting practice - the Nats took the field hoping to help those in Washington with a positive distraction.
They ended the day taking two from the Braves, their 80th and 81st wins of the season. The latter made sure 2013 would be, at the very least, equal to their second best year since moving to Washington, D.C.
Both wins, however, also brought their doubts along the way, especially their 6-5 victory in the 1:05 p.m. start.
The Nationals stormed out to an early lead with three quick runs off Braves’ lefty Mike Minor in the first inning. They saw Dan Haren escape a few scares and give them six innings of one-run ball. But then their lineup went ice cold – 18 straight batters retired at one point – and their bullpen lost its grip on the game.
Drew Storen gave up a run on three hits in the seventh inning and Tyler Clippard coughed up a two-run home run to Evan Gattis in the eighth. A Ryan Mattheus and Ian Krol-pitched top of the ninth saw another Brave touch home and it was on to their last three outs.
Craig Kimbrel took the mound with a 5-3 lead, and having not allowed a run to the Nats all season through ten appearances. The last time the Nats scored on him was July 20, 2012, a span of 13 games.
This time, however, the best closer in the majors wouldn’t exit the bullpen with his best stuff. He walked Adam LaRoche to begin the inning on six pitches, a signal that maybe something was different.
“He didn’t look himself,” Span said. “He’s the best closer in the game, and once he walked the leadoff hitter I was like you know what, ‘we might have a chance.’”
Wilson Ramos, the next batter, promptly followed with a single on the eighth pitch he saw from Kimbrel, after fouling off three fastballs. Kimbrel responded by walking Anthony Rendon to load the bases.
“I’ve never seen him walk two batters in an inning like that, in the ninth inning,” Span said. “When he has a two-run lead, normally, that’s all he needs. He normally only needs one run.”
Chad Tracy, pinch-hitting for Krol, brought the first run home with a groundout to first, allowing LaRoche to score on a fielder’s choice. Then Span walked to the plate.
The now owner of the longest hit streak of the 2013 MLB season (28 games), Span smacked the second pitch he saw from the closer up the middle with a hard groundball, and watched as it escaped through the legs of the usually masterful Andrelton Simmons. Two runs came in and the Nats rushed the field winners of Game 1.
“When it went under his legs, I said ‘that’s the game right there.’ Turned around and everybody was jumping me.”
Kimbrel was only hit with two earned, but the three total runs were the most he's allowed in his career.
The Nats took the momentum from the win into their 7:05 p.m. start, seizing another early lead thanks to a Steve Lombardozzi RBI single in the second inning. The run was all they would need for much of the game as rookie Tanner Roark put in one of the team’s most dominant pitching performances all season.
Roark overcame a high pitch count early on to go a career-high seven innings. He allowed just two hits and a walk, consistently baffling Braves’ hitters with command of the corners. He left after the seventh having retired 13 straight batters and in line for the seventh win of his young career.
“Tanner today was one of the best performances I've seen all year out of any of our guys,” LaRoche said. “Fun to play behind, quick game, quick innings. He was just dominant.”
Roark admitted there was a carryover in energy from the first game, perhaps the only thing that dampened it was the nearly three hours in between.
“Coming in to watch the end of the first game, it got me so amped up,” he said. “I wanted to start the game right then and there, five minutes later. I had to keep my cool, just stay focused and go after them at 7:05.”
Though Roark dazzled, the Nats’ bullpen nearly let the game go after he left. Craig Stammen was fine pitching a perfect eighth inning, but it was a different story for Rafael Soriano.
The Nats’ closer was even afforded three insurance runs provided in the bottom of the eighth. Zimmerman hit a solo home run and was followed by Desmond and LaRoche RBI hits.
Soriano immediately gave up singles to Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman before recording an out, and needed a spectacular defensive play by Zimmerman to do so. The Nats’ third baseman leaped to his left with full extension to snag a Gattis’ line drive and threw it to second behind Upton to get the first two outs.
Soriano then nearly ended the game on a Chris Johnson groundball, but Desmond’s throw to first was high and went down as an E6. Soriano would get Gerald Laird to ground out to finally end the game, and the day, letting the crowd of 28,369 at Nats Park breathe a sigh of relief.
It also put a stamp on what the Nats set out to do, hold their ground against the division's best team.
“I think it sends a good message over to Atlanta that we’re not going anywhere,” Davey Johnson said.
Johnson referred multiple times to the Braves’ 12-4 record against the Nats this season before Tuesday, including their sweep of them in Washington in early August.
“This is our home. This is our yard. You can't do that to us,” he said.