WASHINGTON – If the Braves were tired or frustrated Thursday night, they didn’t show it during a 5-2 win against the Nationals in the unusual opener of a four-game series at Nationals Park.
Kurt Suzuki had a double and home run. Freddie Freeman added two RBI doubles to give him 1,000 career hits. Mike Foltynewicz pitched six strong innings and the Braves won for the third time in four games in Washington this season after losing 23 of their previous 25 at Nationals Park.
The second-place Braves are 5-5 against the National League East leaders after going 4-15 against the Nationals in 2016. Washington still has a substantial 8 1/2-game lead.
“This is a big series,” said Freeman, who returned this week from a fractured wrist three weeks ahead of schedule primarily so he could face the Nationals in this four-game series. “I think everybody knows going into the All-Star break, we can close the gap here, so coming into this 9 1/2 games back, now we’re 8 1/2.
“We’ve got three more to go, tough matchups, but this was a big series for us. It was circled for me to get back for this series. So to get off to a good start like we did today was big.”
The most unusual aspect of the game was the fact that the teams sat through a nearly rainless 3-hour, 5-minute rain delay before the first pitch. What went unsaid, but seemed widely understood, was that Nationals officials delayed the start over concern that approaching rain would halt play in the early innings, and they’d lose starter Gio Gonzalez and have to turn things over to woeful bullpen.
“To tell you the truth I didn’t know what the hell was going on,” Braves second baseman Brandon Phillips said. “I went out there to go check the weather and I saw the sun out just chillin’ and I was just like, man, what’s going on? But I played for (Nationals manager) Dusty (Baker) and the only thing I can say is, he’s a smart manager. That’s all I got to say.”
Phillips laughed, then added, “I’m glad we got it in. I’m glad we got the W. But I knew what was going on. I was like, c’mon, man, let’s just go ahead and get this game over with. But it’s better late than never, you know?”
It already had been a demanding 24 hours for the Braves, who arrived at their suburban Washington hotel at around 3:30 a.m. Thursday, after a charter flight following another rain-delayed night game Wednesday against the Astros in Atlanta.
When play finally began Thursday at 10:10 p.m., fewer than 2,000 fans remained at Nationals Park. Only a light rain every fell and that was two hours into the rain delay, and only a brief shower. Braves manager Brian Snitker was asked if he’d ever seen anything like Thursday’s extended delay.
“Without rain? No. That’s a first for me. Frustrating,” he said. “(Braves players) hung in there good, though. Guys were frustrated obviously. It’s been a long couple of days for us, late travel last night, we got to bed at 5 this morning, then had to wait around like that. It’s tough. But it’s what we do, you can bitch all you want but there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Foltynewicz (7-5) outpitched Gonzalez to win his fourth consecutive decision, allowing eight hits and two runs with one walk and five strikeouts in six innings. He lowered his ERA to 3.77 including 1.89 in his past three starts.
He had already begun his pregame stretching ritual and begun to warm up before Foltynewicz and the Braves were told the game wouldn’t start on time.
“Probably when I went outside I got through 30 or 40 percent of my (pregame) routine, and they just called us in,” he said. “Clear skies out there, so we’re going, what’s going on? I look over at (Nationals catcher Matt) Wieters and Gio over there, they put their hands up.
“It was a weird night, but we got through it with a win. It was huge for us to start the series off with a win and keep the pressure on them.”
Gonzalez (7-4) gave up seven hits and three runs in six innings after entering with a 2.77 ERA. The veteran left-hander slipped to 4-10 with a 5.09 ERA in 19 career starts against the Braves, four more losses than he has against any other team.
Foltynewicz was coming off his finest hour, having taken a no-hitter to the ninth inning in his last start Friday at Oakland before giving up a leadoff homer in the ninth to Parkview High graduate Matt Olson.
He threw a career-high 119 pitches in that game and rebounded impressively on one extra day of rest Thursday. Foltynewicz gave up a run in the second on an Anthony Rendon leadoff double and a sacrifice fly, and the Braves tied it in the third on three consecutive two-out hits including Freeman’s run-scoring double.
An inning later, Suzuki hit a leadoff double and scored on rookie Johan Camargo’s single for a 2-1 Braves lead. Foltynewicz used consecutive strikeouts to work around Daniel Murphy’s leadoff double in the fourth, but the Nationals tied the score in Brian Goodwin’s leadoff homer in the fifth.
The Braves, though, were just getting started with the bats. Suzuki put them ahead for good with a solo homer off Gonzalez in the sixth to make the score 3-2. It was the seventh of the season and third in his past two games for Suzuki, who had a two-homer game Sunday in a sweep-completing win at Oakland.
They pushed the lead to 5-2 in the seventh inning with two runs against reliever Sammy Solis on three doubles from Ender Inciarte, Freeman and Markakis, the latter two driving in a run apiece. Freeman’s hit caromed high off the left-center field wall, nearly an opposite-field home run, and was his 1,000th in 959 career games and fifth hit in three games since returning from a seven-week absence for a fractured wrist.
“It means a little bit,” Freeman said of the 1,000-hit milestone. “Usually when I get some stuff like this it’s usually in losses where you don’t get to enjoy it. Tonight, 1,000 hits, it’s pretty cool. I’ll probably reflect more on it later in life, but right now it’s just nice to get the win and come up with a couple of big hits for the team.”
Freeman switched positions to third base while on the disabled list so the Braves can keep Matt Adams in the lineup at first base for the immediate future. But Thursday, Freeman moved back to his familiar first-base position as Snitker sought to give him a one-day rest from the rigors of playing third base for the first time Freeman spent five games at the “hot corner” a 17-year-old in rookie ball in 2007.
“Somebody on the bench had just called opposite-field homer,” Snitker said of Freeman’s opposite-field double for hit No. 1,000. “It’s just so good to see him back in that lineup, coming up (to bat).”
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