By most statistical metrics, the Nationals' 14-12 record coming into Wednesday defied explanation. They were in the bottom third of the league in most statistical categories, with an offense yet to find its zone and a pitching staff that was unsightly before it was serviceable.
And yet the Nationals entered Wednesday a game out of first place precisely because of their ability to make close games fall in their favor. Call it verve or moxie, quantify it with records in one-run games and close-and-late stats, but more often than not, things have fallen on the Nationals' side of the precipice in tight games.
Wednesday's night's game against the Atlanta Braves felt like another one of those would-be Nationals wins, after Washington weathered a troublesome night from starter Luis Atilano, knocked Braves starter Tommy Hudson out of the game and surged for two eighth-inning runs against reliever Takashi Saito. They even went into the ninth inning with a situation evocative of one of their best wins; tie game against the Braves, Ryan Zimmerman due up. Ring any bells? Stir any memories?
This game didn't. Zimmerman's drive off Billy Wagner was caught a few feet short of the warning track. Closer Matt Capps, called on in a tie game, gave up a bloop hit to Matt Diaz, and the Nationals couldn't come up with an answer in the 10th inning after stirring up plenty of them earlier in the night. It ended as a 7-6 loss to the Braves that left a few Nationals players feeling like they'd just watched the wrong team celebrate a win.
"You felt like something was going to happen," Capps said. "It just didn't."
Atilano was anything but sharp early, walking half of the first six hitters he faced, and then paying for the third of those walks when Omar Infante homered off him to left field in the second inning. Troy Glaus scored, and the Braves took a 2-1 lead with two outs in the inning. After the Nationals had taken the lead on Ian Desmond's second homer in as many nights, the Braves came back with another run to tie the game in the third.
He put the leadoff man on base in four of six innings, two of those with walks.
"I was just all over the place with my pitches," said Atilano, who was drafted 35th overall by the Braves in 2003 and came up with a couple of their current players in Atlanta's farm system. "I was a little pumped up. Obviously, I want to beat them. But things happen."
As erratic as Atilano was, it's something of a wonder the Nationals stayed in the game as long as they did. Some of that was the right-hander's doing; his sinker might not have been working well enough to shut the Braves down, but it was good enough to minimize damage. He left five runners on base in the first five innings, retiring Atlanta's fourth, fifth and sixth hitters in the fifth inning with Chipper Jones on second base.
More of the credit, though, went to a bullpen that pitched 3 2/3 scoreless and an offense that woke up just in time to tie the game in the eighth.
When shortstop Ian Desmond, who'd already homered in the second inning, hit a hard hopper that ate up shortstop Omar Infante, the Nationals had some life. Roger Bernadina's double to the center-field wall moved Desmond to third, and pinch-hitter Josh Willingham drove both of them in with a single to left, tying the game at six.
"I was looking for something to hit. Saito's been tough on me in the past," Willingham said. "He throws me a lot of breaking balls. He left a breaking ball kind of down, on the middle of the plate, and I was able to hit it well."
At that point, any of the 15,616 in attendance could have sensed a Nationals win coming, especially when Capps plowed through the Braves in nine pitches in the ninth inning. But in the 10th, he put a 1-0 pitch over the plate to Troy Glaus, who hit it for a single. Melky Cabrera sacrificed him to second, and Roger Bernadina had no throw home on Diaz's blooper, with pinch runner Brandon Hicks scoring easily.
Manager Jim Riggleman said he didn't think Bernadina, who double-clutched the ball before throwing to the infield, had a shot to get Hicks at home; he thought Bernadina made the right decision by preventing Diaz from getting to second, which paid off with a double play to end the inning after that.
And Capps was more flustered about the pitch to Glaus than the one to Diaz, which was an inside sinker he said he'd throw again.
"The only thing I would change right now is the 1-0 pitch to Glaus, or the 0-0 pitch," Capps said. "If I don't fall behind him there, maybe I don't have to get in, I can try and pick a little bit more. That's a nice piece of hitting by him."
In the end, it was a loss in the kind of game the Nationals have been winning this year.
"Losing's losing, but when you lose when you came back, fought, kind of scratched and clawed or whatever, it hurts a little bit," Willingham said. "But we'll be fine tomorrow. We've got to have a quick recovery."