WASHINGTON – After Evan Gattis homered in the top of the fifth, reminding a sellout crowd at Nationals Park of why he warranted a splendid nickname as a rookie, the home team had a would-be inside-the-park home run overturned by an umpires' review in the bottom of the inning.
And so, things were going the Braves’ way again in the first of 19 games between the National League East rivals.
The Nationals did tie the score on Ryan Zimmerman’s sacrifice fly in the sixth inning, but Chris Johnson’s sacrifice fly in the eighth lifted the Braves to a 2-1 win in a series opener that saw the Braves get another strong pitching performance from an unheralded starter, rookie David Hale.
Johnson also homered for the only run in the Braves’ series-finale win Wednesday at Milwaukee.
After David Carpenter got three consecutive strikeouts with two runners on base in the eighth inning, Craig Kimbrel struck out two in a perfect ninth inning for his third save in three games.
“They had some opportunities and we wiggled out of it,” said manager Fredi Gonzalez, whose Braves (3-1) improved to 18-6 in the past 24 matchups with the Nationals, including 9-3 in one-run games. “Carpenter made one hell of a pitch to (Bryce) Harper in the eighth inning with runners at first and second.”
Hale allowed five hits and two walks in five scoreless innings with four strikeouts, not earning a decision but plenty of appreciation from teammates while reducing his career ERA to 0.56 in three starts, with 18 strikeouts and three walks in 16 innings. The Marietta native had been ill Wednesday and Thursday, and Gonzalez didn’t want to push him any further.
“It’s good to get that one under my belt,” Hale said. “First start on the road. But it’s always fun to throw in front of a crowd like that.”
Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann had nine strikeouts with only one walk in five innings, but one of the four hits he allowed was Gattis’ leadoff homer in the sixth that broke a scoreless tie.
Gattis took a 92-mph fastball for a called strike on the first pitch, and when Zimmermann threw the same thing on the next pitch, “El Oso Blanco” crushed it. It was a no-doubt-about it homer that sailed out of the ballpark in the same area as Gattis’ homer on a chest-high Stephen Strasburg fastball last year in the catcher’s rookie season.
Controversy arrived in the bottom of the fifth when Ian Desmond led off with a line drive to the left-field corner that looked like it would go for a double. When the ball went under a gap in the fence and stayed there, left fielder Justin Upton put his hands up to signal it had lodged under the fence padding. Desmond kept running.
When the umpire didn’t signal the play dead, and with shortstop Andrelton Simmons shouting to throw the ball in, Upton retrieved it and threw. By then, Desmond was already near home plate.
“I looked in and it didn’t look like (third-base umpire Marvin Hudson) was coming out to look at it,” Upton said. “Simmons was panicking, telling me to throw the ball, so I picked it up and threw it…. (Hudson) said that he was about to come out and check to see if it was under the fence, because he can’t kill the play until he’s 100-percent sure. Which is what he has to do, what he’s been taught to do. There was a little bit of confusion, but it got worked out.”
Gonzalez ran out, spoke briefly to third baseman Johnson and Upton, and used his alloted challenge under the new replay system to ask that the play be reviewed. The umpires conferred, the play was reviewed, and the call overturned. Desmond was sent back to second base as a crowd of 42,834 booed lustily.
The umpires ruled that the ball had lodged in the padding and awarded Desmond two bases according to Rule 7.05(f). Gonzalez said he’ll make sure his outfielders know in future situations to hold their hands up and not try to retrieve the ball if it’s stuck in or beneath a fence or under a bench.
After the Nationals tied the score with a run off rookie reliever Gus Schlosser in the sixth, the Braves regained the lead for good in the eighth. Jason Heyward drew a leadoff walk against reliever Tyler Clippard (0-1), who struck out B.J. Upton – he was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts – before Freddie Freeman singled.
Heyward alertly raced to third on the hit to put runners on the corners with one out, and Johnson’s sacrifice fly put the Braves ahead 2-1.
“Heyward has a terrific (dash from) first to third to get us in scoring position,” Gonzalez said.
After Freeman’s leadoff single in the fourth, Zimmermann had struck out the next three batters beginning with Johnson.
“Zimmerman is tough, man,” Johnson said. “Usually anytime we face the Nationals, we know with the arms they’re throwing out there and our pitching staff, we’re going to get into games like this. So it was good, it was nice for me to get in that RBI situation and get the sac fly. That’s kind of my job.”
The Braves made it seven consecutive times Clippard has given up at least one run against them. He was 0-2 with an 11.12 ERA in six appearances against the Braves last season, and 6-1 with a 1.65 ERA in 66 appearances against everyone else.
Meanwhile, Braves relievers Luis Avilan and Carpenter helped continue the Braves’ recent bullpen mastery against Washington hitters. Carpenter allowed a single and walk to start the eighth inning, then struck out the heart of the order, fanning Adam LaRoche, Ryan Zimmerman and Harper, the latter looking at a perfectly placed 96-mph fastball.
Jordan Walden gave up a one-out double in the seventh, and Avilan induced an inning-ending groundout by Denard Span.
Hale’s other two starts were September home games against the out-of-it Phillies and Padres, and so there was some anticipation to see how the Marietta native might hold up against some tougher competition in unfriendly confines.
The Braves found out Friday, when Hale made some big pitches and took advantage of some Washington mistakes on the bases: Harper was caught stealing after a one-out single in the second inning; Desmond was caught in a rundown between second and third when he tried to steal after the homer-turned-double in the fifth, and LaRoche was out on a strong relay throw to the plate by Andrelton Simmons after Upton misplayed Zimmerman’s one-out double to the wall in the fourth.
“They made a couple of baserunning mistakes,” Gonzalez said. “We did a nice things fundamentally, but we wiggled out of a lot of situations. Played good defense and made some pitches when we had to.”