Marty Niland: Solstice brings a potential defining moment for the Nats

The Summer Solstice is a day of celebration in many cultures, and now Nationals fans might want to adopt it as a holiday of their own after a magical and momentous series against the Atlanta Braves.

Those who paid close enough attention Saturday evening might have actually noticed the Earth tilting and the momentum shifting at Nationals Park. In the waning moments of the year’s latest daylight, the Nats rolled back the tide of disappointment against the Braves, and possibly set the tone for the remainder of the season.

It came hours after a potentially soul-crushing, 13-inning defeat on Friday night, as the Nats’ bats fell silent against a pair of rookie relievers, wasting Anthony Rendon’s game-tying, two-out homer in the ninth.

Some teams might have packed it in after ceding first place to their biggest division rival by losing for the seventh time in eight meetings. Not the Nats.

Instead, Doug Fister performed the groundball-inducing, inning-eating wizardry the Nats envisioned last winter when they traded three players to get him. The Braves managed just five hits and one walk in eight innings, and their few scoring opportunities ended with weak popups or harmless grounders.

After an injury-plagued start, it hasn’t taken Fister long to reach his potential with the Nats. In his last four starts, he is 3-1 with a 1.93 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP over 28 innings. He’s been unbeatable at home - 4-0 with a 1.93 ERA and a 0.79 WHIP, also in 28 innings.

On Sunday, Tanner Roark bulldogged his way through the Atlanta lineup, allowing four hits and two walks over 5 1/3 innings. By the time he turned it over to the bullpen to retire the final 11 batters, it was the Braves who seemed snake-bitten and frustrated, not like a team that had dominated the season series. Chris Johnson and Justin Upton were ejected for jawing at home plate umpire Mark Carlson following strikeouts.

The bad luck that had plagued the Nationals against the Braves dating back to last season seemed gone, as did whatever momentum Atlanta gained by winning Thursday and Friday. The first-place Nats emerged confident and upbeat, with injured sluggers Wilson Ramos and Bryce Harper due back in the lineup soon. The vanquished Braves placed yet another starting pitcher, Gavin Floyd, on the disabled list.

Does this sound familiar to anyone following these teams in recent seasons? It should.

In July 2012, the Braves came to town for a four-game series, trailing the first-place Nats by 3 1/2 games. After taking the first two games, one by rallying from a 9-0 deficit against Stephen Strasburg and the other on a five-hit shutout led by Ben Sheets, Atlanta looked poised to sweep the series and knock the Nats out of first place.

It never happened.

John Lannan, up from Syracuse for the second game of a doubleheader, tossed seven strong innings in what might have been the most clutch performance of his career, and the Nats won 5-2. The next day, the Nats whipped the Braves 9-2 behind the pitching of Ross Detwiler and a pair of Ryan Zimmerman homers.

That doubleheader nightcap brought the defining moment of the season as the Nats would go on to win six straight and 18 of their next 22, all but ensuring the best record in baseball.

Perhaps the Summer Solstice of 2014 will be remembered as the touchstone for this year’s Nationals on their way to another magical season.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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