Early offense helps Braves defeat Nationals in series opener

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Caption
Braves pitcher Charlie Morton comments on catcher William Contreras’ development over the last few outings.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

If the Braves played only the Nationals, they’d be in great shape.

Opening a four-game series, the Braves defeated the Nationals 5-3 Monday in front of 37,668 fans at Truist Park. The Braves are once again on the cusp of .500 at 25-26.

“We’re still fighting here,” manager Brian Snitker said. “It might be this month, next month. You just have to keep going. It’s a long road and we play every day so we have to take every day as a separate entity, go out and try to win. We’re going to keep getting after it and try to get hitting on all cylinders, as I’ve said before, and get the different aspects of the game going at once. That was a really good ballgame right there to hang on and win.”

The Braves scored four times in the first two innings, which proved to be enough. They quickly built a lead with a three-run first, highlighted by catcher William Contreras’ two-run single off Nationals starter Joe Ross. Ronald Acuna tacked on another run with his solo shot in the next inning. It was Acuna’s 16th home run, moving him into a four-way tie for the major-league lead.

“I try not to think about it,” Acuna said (via team interpreter Franco Garcia) of the home-run leaderboard. “I’m not focused on it. I just try to go out there and play my game and try to help the team in any way I can.”

The blast was Acuna’s first homer since May 22 against the Pirates, though that’s only a four-game homer drought, since off days and weather kept the Braves off the field for much of the past week. Acuna has a hit in four consecutive contests.

Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna (13) beats the throw to Washington Nationals first baseman Josh Bell (19) for an infield single in the first Inning Monday, May 31, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. (John Bazemore/AP)
Caption
Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna (13) beats the throw to Washington Nationals first baseman Josh Bell (19) for an infield single in the first Inning Monday, May 31, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. (John Bazemore/AP)

Credit: John Bazemore

Credit: John Bazemore

Braves starter Charlie Morton’s season has been defined by one inning per outing going awry. Monday, it was the fourth, when Morton allowed three runs. Morton retired nine of the first 11 Nationals, including seven straight, before the frame.

Juan Soto walked and later advanced on Morton’s failed pick-off attempt. On an 0-2 count, Josh Bell then hammered an elevated fastball into the seats to cut the Braves’ lead in half. The Nationals tacked on another run in the inning, in which Morton faced eight hitters.

Morton allowed two singles in the fifth but prevented any damage. He finished having allowed three runs on six hits in five innings. He struck out six and walked three. It was an underwhelming encore to his best start of the season, when he allowed one run over seven innings in a victory at Fenway Park. Nonetheless, he did enough to help the Braves win.

“It was nice today,” Morton said. “The ceremony before the game (for Memorial Day), the fans are out here. To take that early lead, luckily I didn’t give up all of our lead, and then to add onto it. It was a good win. It was a good way to win. I’m just hoping we take some momentum into that Dodgers series (this weekend), too.”

Braves relievers Luke Jackson, A.J. Minter, Chris Martin and Will Smith combined to hold the Nationals to one hit over four scoreless innings to end the game.

Braves 5, Nationals 3 (box score)

While there’s little separation in the National League East, the Nationals (21-29) are digging a deeper hole at the bottom. The Braves are partly responsible for Washington’s rough start, beating them in six of seven games this season. The Braves trailed the first-place Mets by three games before New York played in Arizona Monday night; the Nationals fell to 6-1/2 games back.

The Braves’ wins against the Nationals have helped them hover near the .500 mark through 51 games, and should that success continue this week, perhaps the team will finally achieve a winning record for the first time in 2021. It finished May with a 13-12 record.

“We just have to focus on doing our job, keeping the intensity and the focus up,” Acuna said.

The series continues Tuesday, when Braves lefty Max Fried (2-2, 4.63) will face Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg (1-2, 4.43).