Max Fried swats the Nats. The Braves roll on

Max Fried pitches in the first inning of Thursday's Braves-Nationals game at SunTrust Park. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Max Fried pitches in the first inning of Thursday's Braves-Nationals game at SunTrust Park. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

This was …

Dare we say, “Easy”?

Yes. We dare.

Thursday’s game was easy. Max Fried was unlucky to surrender the one hit he did. The Braves mustered two runs before Stephen Strasburg managed an out. The team that needs to win this series lost 4-2. That team is Washington, which trails the Braves by eight games with time flying.

We keep hearing that the Nationals are the National League’s second-best team. (As opposed to the Braves, who hold the NL’s second-best record.) This contention is based on the Nats’ hotness the past few months, their impressive run differential and the starting pitchers at their disposal. Don’t look now, but one of those big-name #Natitude arms just got outdone by a 25-year-old who’s 16-4. (Even if you think a pitcher’s wins and losses are yesterday’s stats, 16-4 is noteworthy.)

The visiting side manufactured one base runner over the first seven innings. That came with two out in the first, when Anthony Rendon topped a swinging bunt toward third. Josh Donaldson, who spent much of the evening making like Brooks Robinson, did everything he could – dashed in, bare-handed the ball and threw accurately to first – but Rendon beat it by a half-step. That was it for Washington versus Fried. He struck out nine. He walked none. He was great.

“That was as good as it gets,” said Brian McCann, who caught Fried’s pitches this night.

Then: “He’s taking the next step in his development. He’s turning into one of those pitchers. He’s really, really good.”

The Nationals arrived in Cobb County having gone 59-29, the best 88-game stretch in franchise annals. The 89th game of that run was never out of hand, but it only felt close when Mark Melancon nearly made a hash of closing. Try as he might, though, he surrendered only half the lead.

Everything before the ninth had bordered on domination. Fried retired the final 19 hitters he faced. Strasburg retired none of the first three Braves he saw. Ronald Acuna led off with a single to left and stole second. Ozzie Albies’ bloop double drove him home. Freddie Freeman’s single scored Albies.

Strasburg would yield only one more hit – Acuna’s booming homer to right-center in the fifth on a fat 3-0 fastball – but he labored. He threw 52 pitches before getting the second out of the third inning. He needed 115 pitches to get through six. Fried, on the other hand, required but 90 pitches to go seven. Sixty-one were strikes. His final pitch was a 96-mph fastball that Juan Soto swung through.

Soto had no chance against Fried, who began the season as a fastball/curveball pitcher but who has developed a slider that adds contrast to all else. Soto whiffed three times. Trea Turner struck out twice. The Nats had been hitting everybody. Apart from one well-placed roller, they couldn’t touch Fried.

Said Braves manager Brian Snitker: “You do that against that club, you’ve done something. In a game like this, to have a kid come out and get it – that’s great.”

The burden of proof in this four-game set rests with the Nats. Both teams figure to make the playoffs, but only the National League East winner will avoid the terror of the wild-card game. Washington’s remaining schedule is much tougher than the Braves’, meaning the D.C. crew needs to make hay in the seven games remaining against the team ahead of it. Those seven games are down to six. No hay was made against Fried.

The Braves would surely be satisfied with a split. One game in, they’re halfway there. The absolute worst they can do over the weekend is have their lead cut to five games, which is still a lot. Even the Nationals had to know they weren’t apt to catch the Braves – the closest they’ve been to first place since April 30 is four games – and Thursday’s performance did nothing to jump-start Beltway bandwagon. They dispatched an All-Star pitcher and got outpitched, outhit and outplayed.

Said Fried: “You know where they are. I just wanted to come out and get us off on the right foot.”

This, we should note, is the sort of thing these Braves do. We around here have spent the spring and summer fretting about this flaw and that failing, but they’re 87-54 with 21 games left. Go 13-8 and they’ll break 100. They’ve won 18 of 22 and 15 of 17. As hot as the Nationals have been, guess who’s hotter?

We keep hearing about the Dodgers, and we’ve heard a lot lately about the Nats. These guys can play a little, too. They played a lot Thursday night. For all the nits we’ve picked, a greater truth has revealed itself: This is one heck of a ballclub.