Ted Leavengood: A different kind of rolling thunder

Every Memorial Day weekend, the sound of the Harleys resonates in Washington, D.C., as they circle the city. Rolling Thunder has become an iconic part of somber Memorial Day remembrances across the city. There was, however, a very different rolling thunder that swept through Atlanta this weekend, as the Nationals pushed 22 runs across the plate at Turner Field over three days to steamroll the Braves.

The bats up and down the lineup took part, as clutch hit after clutch hit rained down following Ian Desmond’s two-out, two-run single in the first inning Friday night. Bryce Harper had two home runs, Ryan Zimmerman two clutch doubles and much of it came against two of Atlanta’s best pitchers. The Nationals beat Atlanta ace Tim Hudson on Friday night and then their best pitcher, Brandon Beachy, on Sunday night. There was nothing cheap about the runs or the wins.

But Gio Gonzalez’s performance Sunday night may have been nearly as important as all of the runs scored. The best pitching staff in the National League had its pride on the line when he took the mound against the Braves. Both Ross Detwiler and Stephen Strasburg struggled mightily the prior two nights and Beachy’s 1.77 ERA led the league as play began.

Gonzalez walked three batters in the first three innings and gave up two runs. Atlanta had its first lead of the weekend and with Beachy on the mound, the 2-0 advantage looked formidable. But Gonzalez held for seven strong innings, striking out 10 to become the major league strikeout leader. Beachy walked away with his ERA lead intact, but at the end of the night, Gonzalez was the winning pitcher in every way.

Three wins at Turner field take on perhaps even more significance than the series win in Philadelphia earlier in the week. Beating Tim Hudson and Roy Halladay in the same week put to rest many a bad memory. And the Atlanta wins were impressive not only for the convincing nature of the score at the end of each night, but because Washington simply outplayed the Braves, committing not a single error for the three-game series.

And it mattered, too. The Nationals have accumulated so many demons over the past seven years that Matt Diaz has no special status. But as the Braves prepared to mount a charge in the fifth inning Friday night, there he stood, smug and relaxed as if he knew exactly what Chien-Ming Wang had on his mind. And sure enough, Diaz laced the first pitch into the gap. Two runs scored and Diaz headed for third with the tying run.

Ankiel’s signature throw from the wall hit Desmond’s glove perfectly, but it was Desmond’s absolute dart of a relay throw that caught the less-than-fleet Diaz well short of the third base bag. That was the sine qua non for me that evening. It was a beautifully efficient throw. Diaz was the tying run had he made third base. There would have been but a single out and Diaz would have scored on most any ground ball fetched from Wang’s sinker. It was a quietly pivotal moment and while the rest of the game was not without drama, the affair was settled from there.

There were oddities to the weekend, as well. Watching Livan Hernandez come in out of the Atlanta bullpen was wrong on so many levels. He looked heavier in a Brave’s uniform, but he throws the same junk that he has for years now, and he made it work much of the time.

Then there was Wang working Tim Hudson for a two-out walk in the seventh inning Friday night. It was an unlikely but very important moment in the first game. It opened the door for the three runs that iced the game. But when Steve Lombardozzi followed the walk with a double into the right field corner, Wang ran the bases as if on cat’s paws. He touched the second base bag as if he had quite never seen it from that angle before and danced into third wondering whether he had done it correctly.

Wang is not the only National who was on uncertain ground. It will take some getting used to, this sweeping the Braves in Atlanta.

The Memorial Day remembrances will begin on time today. The thunder of the Harleys will punctuate events all across the city, but when this weekend rolls around again, when the guttural noise rolls down the turnpikes in years to come, I will think back to the weekend in Atlanta when the Nationals laid claim to first place in one of their most impressive shows of legitimacy. It will be a weekend long worth remembering.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released last June. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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