The Nationals sent their regulars out to face the Braves tonight, hoping they’d still play with the same edge they displayed over the weekend while locking up another division title. They wound up getting one of their worst clunkers of the season.
With Gio Gonzalez laboring and that lineup of regulars flailing away against Julio Teheran, the Nationals were trounced 8-0 in the first of 19 games left on the schedule before the postseason.
Technically speaking, the Nats don’t need to put forth any better effort the rest of the way. They’ll still play in the National League Division Series, most likely with home-field advantage through the first round. But manager Dusty Baker and his players spoke this afternoon of their intent to play hard throughout the season’s final three weeks, perhaps even challenging the fast-fading Dodgers for the league’s best record.
Then they took the field tonight and laid an egg. Evidence of a natural letdown two days after the excitement of a clinch?
“I don’t think that was it,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “I just don’t think we played very well today. Everyone wanted to go out there, play hard and get a win. It’s just a hard game. We came out there and didn’t play well today.”
Gonzalez set the negative tone during a laborious top of the first that included only one run but required 30 pitches to complete. Things progressed downhill from there, with Freddie Freeman launching a three-run homer off the batter’s eye in the top of the third and Johan Camargo and Ender Inciarte each doubling in the fourth to make it a 5-0 game.
At the same time, Gonzalez was inducing a lot of swings-and-misses. His first six outs all were recorded via strikeout, creating an odd dichotomy of results batter-to-batter.
“It was weird to me,” the lefty said. “You get the strikeouts, and then all of the sudden the hits came in. It was just one of those games. You take it for what it was, sweep it under the rug and get ready for tomorrow. It was one of those games you can’t really understand what happened.”
Gonzalez, who entered with a 2.50 ERA that ranked third in the National League, departed after throwing 90 pitches in five innings, his ERA jumping up to 2.68 (now fourth in the NL behind Clayton Kershaw and teammates Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg).
The left-hander has been brilliant all season pitching out of jams, with opponents entering tonight batting a measly .137 against him with runners in scoring position (best in the majors). But the Braves stacked together their hits in this game, going 3-for-8 with men in scoring position in a rare weak outing by Gonzalez.
The good news for Gonzalez: By striking out Inciarte to open the game, he reached 180 innings pitched for the season and thus saw his $12 million option for 2018 automatically vest. No matter what happens from here on out, he is guaranteed that money next season, with the Nationals responsible for it unless they choose to trade him (not likely).
“I think we’ll just wait,” Gonzalez said. “Just wait to see what the end of the year looks like. We’ll just focus and continue to strive to get better, and see what we get and got to go with in the postseason and stuff like that.”
That was the only positive news to come out of this game, though. In addition to their starter’s struggles, the Nationals did nothing at the plate against Teheran, who had surrendered 34 runs in his last 52 2/3 innings to this opponent.
The Nats strung together multiple hits in only two innings, failing to score either time. They also ran themselves into two early outs, with Howie Kendrick caught trying to steal second base in the bottom of the first and Trea Turner picked off first in the bottom of the third.
Atlanta piled on late, scoring three runs via four extra-base hits off A.J. Cole in two innings of relief to send the Nationals to their second-most lopsided loss of the season, on a night in which they could be excused for suffering from a bit of a hangover.
“I was hoping not, because we had a day off in between,” Baker said. “But I don’t know if it was a letdown or Teheran. He was sharp. That’s as sharp as we’ve seen him this year. He’s thrown some pretty good games against us, but he was really sharp. I’d like to not take credit away from him.”