This year has seen more undulations. Washington fell four games behind the Braves in April and saw regulars Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Bryce Harper lost to injury. All three returned — Zimmerman has since been reinjured — but Harper caused a stir on his reappearance by suggesting that manager Matt Williams hadn’t deployed the correct lineup. (Harper seemed to suggest that center fielder Denard Span should be benched.) This week Williams bristled when it was suggested that Harper, whom he earlier chastised for a lack of hustle, might be sent to the minors.
This prompted Mark Mulder, once a pitcher and now an ESPN commentator, to say, according to the Washington Post: “I almost feel like this team’s kind of done it to themselves with the whole Strasburg thing, shutting him down a few years ago. It just feels like there’s always drama. … Whether it’s Harper’s comments about the lineup, no matter what it is, there’s just always something that this team is dealing with.”
As is his custom, Strasburg spit the bit against the Braves on Friday. In his previous four starts at Turner Field, he had: Exited after three innings because of 106-degree heat; exited after six innings with forearm tightness; exited after two innings with a strained oblique and been ejected in the second after throwing two pitches behind Andrelton Simmons. Now this latest debacle, which Williams sought to explain Saturday: “The guys over in that clubhouse (meaning the Braves) have power, and they really feed on mistakes.”
Of Washington’s 25 past losses to the Braves, 13 were started by Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, who in 2012 were considered two of the best pitchers in baseball. As fate would have it, the Braves were scheduled to face both this weekend — and to miss Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann. The Nationals are 2-6 in Strasburg’s past eight starts against the Braves; they’re 0-7 in Gonzalez’s.
As one Brave said, speaking of Strasburg: “He’s really good, but we feel good against him.” The same could be said for the team’s attitude whenever they confront the ballyhooed #Natitude. The 2014 Braves probably couldn’t win any other division in baseball; because they own the Nats, they have a shot in the NL East.
Indeed, the Nationals have been frustrated so often in this ballpark that they took heart from Friday’s narrow loss, in which they drew within a run before succumbing. “It would have been easy to fold the tent,” Williams said. “(To rally) says something about our club … It didn’t go our way, but the fact that we made it a game was important to us.”
And that, on this storm-tossed August weekend, is how things stood: The Nationals took pride for coming close against a team that had lost eight in a row. Technically the Braves are chasing the Nats, but sometimes it feels the other way around.