Nats beat Braves for fifth time in seven recent matchups (updated)

The Nationals and Braves have played each other enough over the last two weeks – seven of their last 10 games, to be precise, with one more still to come Sunday – to have seen everyone the other side has to offer, oftentimes more than once. It’s as good as any way to judge the progress a young, rebuilding club has made against an established powerhouse.

And at this point, it’s impossible not to be encouraged by the Nats’ ability not only to hold their own against the Braves, but to at times look like the clearly superior team.

Today’s 7-3 victory was the latest in a string of examples to support that conclusion. Behind another strong (if inefficient) start from MacKenzie Gore and a much-appreciated display of sustained offense, the Nationals improved to 5-2 against Atlanta during this stretch. And three of those games have been won by four or more runs.

No, it’s not appropriate to say the Nats are the Braves’ equals at this point. Even with these losses, Atlanta is 35-27 and comfortably in the pennant race. Even with these wins, the Nationals are 29-35, part of a large pack of sub-.500 clubs that could climb into the race with a hot streak but aren’t there yet.

But the gap is undoubtedly closing after several years of head-to-head matchups that looked as lopsided as any in the sport. (The Nats went 5-8 last season, 5-14 the season before that, against the six-time division champ.) And that’s wholly encouraging for the local ballclub.

"That team, they're battle-tested," third baseman Nick Senzel said. "They've got a lot of great players, and they've been great for years now. For us to play them and to beat them ... I think it's big. I don't think our young guys back down. I think they accept the challenge."

The Nationals haven’t exactly been good at jumping out to early leads. Proof: Their 14 first-inning runs entering the day were fewest in the majors. But four of those 14 came off Charlie Morton two weeks ago in Atlanta, and they added to that total today in the rematch thanks to Eddie Rosario’s two-run double in the bottom of the first.

"It's always very important to get ahead early," Rosario said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "I think it adds more confidence to our starting pitcher, relaxes him a little bit knowing he has a lead. Even on a personal level as a player, too, you feel more comfortable."

As they did at Truist Park, the Nats kept the pressure on Morton, scoring three more times before the 40-year-old departed after the fifth. CJ Abrams delivered a two-out, opposite-field RBI single in the second. Luis García Jr. and Senzel both doubled in the fourth. And after Lane Thomas was gifted 270 feet via two Braves errors, he scored on Rosario’s two-out RBI single to right.

Rosario drove in three of the Nationals’ first five runs, but his most notable at-bat may have come in the seventh, when he didn't run out of the box on a slow roller up the first base line. With runners on the corners, he helped the Braves turn a simple 3-6-3 double play and prevent the runner on third from scoring.

"I think it's a foul ball, but it stayed fair," Rosario said, answering in English. "It doesn't feel great when I see that, but sometimes that happens in the game."

"It'll be another conversation, let's just say it that way," manager Davey Martinez said. "But he helped us win the game today. Let him enjoy the victory. It was a big win for us. We've got a chance to win a series tomorrow, so let's go do that."

The real offensive star of the day was Senzel, who quietly is on a sustained tear at the plate. Hours after becoming the last position player on the team to steal a base, Senzel doubled in each of his first two at-bats, then launched a two-run homer in the sixth to complete a big afternoon.

Over his last 13 games, Senzel is now batting .359 with a .444 on-base percentage and .590 slugging percentage. Plus, of course, the stolen base.

"I have to thank the staff and the Nationals for giving me the opportunity to play every day," he said. "I think the more I play, the better rhythm I can get in. I just have the comfort of coming to the field, getting into a rhythm and just going about my work and playing the game."

All the run support put Gore in an advantageous position, but the lefty put himself in a tougher spot than necessary with an excessively long first inning. After striking out the game’s first two batters, he loaded the bases. And though he got himself out of the jam unscathed, it required 27 pitches to do it, making the rest of the day an uphill climb.

"I'm an emotional guy, always have been since I was young," he said. "It's more being able to execute with guys on, not necessarily controlling emotions. ... Things get frustrating at times, but it's just about being able to make a pitch when we need to, to get out of it."

Gore actually was respectably efficient after that, averaging 16 pitches per inning from the second through the fifth. He faced the minimum from the second through the fourth. The only run he allowed while on the mound came via Ozzie Albies’ two-out double in the fifth, and he followed that with a strikeout of Austin Riley, his seventh of the game.

But as the top of the sixth approached, Gore’s pitch count stood at 91, with the heart of the Atlanta lineup coming to bat. Martinez decided to let his starter begin the inning but had Derek Law warming in the bullpen to be ready at the first sign of trouble.

"He kept us in the ballgame. We scored some runs for him," Martinez said. "He wanted to go back out. I told him: 'You've got 100 pitches. That's it.' But he pitched really well."

Sure enough, Gore allowed back-to-back singles to open the inning, so in came Law, who had allowed 13 of 19 inherited runners to score this season. That stat is now 14-of-20, even though he retired all three batters he faced in the sixth, because with a runner on third he was charged with a wild pitch on a high fastball that ticked off Keibert Ruiz’s mitt and rolled to the backstop.

Law also allowed a leadoff homer to Sean Murphy in the seventh. But by that point, Senzel had already hit his two-run homer to extend the lead, so the Nationals remained in good shape as they headed down the stretch and ultimately beat one of the teams they've been trying to catch up to again.

"When you play these teams that are really good, and you compete with that, that should say a lot to our guys," Martinez said. "We can play with them. We've got to continue to do the little things. We've got to continue to throw strikes. And we've got to do a better job of driving in runs. But to do what we're doing against Atlanta ... that's a good sign."

Game 65 lineups: Nats vs. Braves
Senzel finally gets first steal; Doolittle filling...

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