Nine innings were not enough to decide first place in the National League East. Facing off in the nation's capital, the division-leading Washington Nationals hosted the Atlanta Braves in the second game of a four-game set with a half-game separating the two clubs.
In Friday's game, Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg took the mound opposite Braves left-hander Mike Minor. The Braves jumped on the board quickly as slugger Freddie Freeman took a two-strike, two-out pitch deep to right field to give his club an early 1-0 lead after one inning. The Nationals answered back an inning later when Ian Desmond belted his own two-out, solo shot to pull the teams even.
The score remained tied until the fourth when Andrelton Simmons laced an RBI single up the middle to give Atlanta a 2-1 lead. They tacked on two more runs an inning later on another two-strike, two-out hit. A two-run double off the bat of Jason Heyward gave the Braves a 4-1 lead.
Strasburg worked six innings, surrendering a season-high nine hits. He gave up more than three earned runs (four) for only the third time this season (16 starts). He did, however, strike out eight batters and walked none.
His counterpart, however, was phenomenal. Making his 10th start after starting the season on the disabled list because of injured shoulder, Minor held the Nats to two runs and seven hits in seven innings of work. He reached double-digit strikeouts for the fourth time in his career and second time this season. The 11 punchouts he generated were one off his personal best set back in August 2010.
Though Minor was stellar, and left the game with a two-run lead, he settled for a no-decision. Shut down closer Craig Kimbrel entered the game in the bottom of the ninth inning looking to preserve the 4-2 lead in search of his 22nd save of the season. Nate McLouth led off the inning with a walk following a lengthy battle with the All-Star reliever. Kimbrel retired the next two batters with ease before falling behind Anthony Rendon. With the count at 2-1, Kimbrel hurled a 98-mph heater only to see Rendon crush the offering to left-center field. Initially ruled a double, a quick review showed Rendon cleared the fence and tied the score at 4-4. It was Kimbrel's fourth blown save of the season, matching his total from last season, and the fourth career save he has blown against Washington. It was also the first home run he gave up this season.
Much like their place in the standings, the two teams stayed evenly matched for the next three innings. Washington used veterans Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard and Jerry Blevins to cover innings 10-12 while Atlanta countered with a trio of youngsters: Luis Avilan, Juan Jaime and Ryan Buchter; the latter two making their major-league debuts. Despite the gap in experience, each team posted zeros in the three extra frames. Jaime, a former Nationals' farmhand, was particularly impressive, flashing a 98-mph fastball to go along with a mid-70s, loopy curve.
Blevins, a left-hander, began the 13th inning against B.J. Upton. For all his struggles since joining the Braves, Upton can still reach bases against left-handed pitching. He did so once again after Blevins temporarily lost the strike zone and issued a five-pitch walk. Freeman then stepped into the batter's box.
Although he is left-handed himself, the franchise first baseman has posted reverse splits this season. Entering play Friday, he had hit .302/.371/.581 in 97 plate appearances against his fellow lefties. Freeman worked the count full before pulling a single to right field and moving Upton to third with no outs.
Having already burned the top four right-handers in his bullpen, Nationals' manager Matt Williams decided to leave the left-handed Blevins in the game rather than turning to right-hander Aaron Barrett to face Evan Gattis, one of the premier hitters against lefties in the league. Gattis has crushed southpaws to the tune of .395/.425/.789 this season. Williams' decision backfired quickly as Gattis smacked a single to left field, scoring Upton and putting the Braves on top once again. They tacked on another run for good measure.
Braves' reliever Jordan Walden closed out the bottom of the 13th inning to complete the 6-4 win.
The win pushed Atlanta to the top of the National League East and dropped Washington into second place. Meanwhile, Friday's victory by the upstart Miami Marlins leaves the Nationals as close to first place (a half-game) as they are to third. And don't look now, but just 3 1/2 games out of first sit the Philadelphia Phillies, winners of five straight and eight of their last 10.
If Friday's contest between the Braves and Nationals proved anything, it's that the race in the East is wide open.