The Braves took down the Nationals 8-5 thanks to an offense that collected 12 hits, including five doubles and two homers, while grabbing the first game of a critical three-game set to begin the second half of the 2018 season.
The Nationals appeared to be ready to duke it out with Atlanta after the Braves plated two in the first frame.
The Nats then did something a bit unusual in pulling off a double steal.
Harper started for second, grabbing the attention and a throw from Braves catcher Kurt Suzuki. Eaton then raced down the line from third to score the Nats’ first run. But the Nats were unable to get Harper home and the inning ended when Braves starter Aníbal Sánchez got Matt Adams to fly out to right field.
The second inning seemed even more promising when the Nats got runners on base with one out. Matt Wieters doubled and Stephen Strasburg singled. A walk to Eaton loaded the bases. But the rally fizzled out when Turner was caught looking at a third strike and Harper grounded out to second to end the threat.
The Nats did produce some offense later. Adams connected on a solo shot in the third. Turner homered in the fifth, also a solo homer. Juan Soto blasted a two-run shot in the eighth. That cut the lead to 8-5, but the Nats then recorded six consecutive outs that ended the game.
Eaton said the fact that the Nats couldn’t put a big inning together has been an unfortunate refrain to the season through 97 games.
“We were scraping some runs together there early, and then, it’s been kind of the story,” Eaton said. “Runners in scoring position, not getting the big hit. Baseball’s difficult when you don’t get the big hit and you’ve got guys on. Part of the game, of course, but sooner or later, those big hits need to start coming in bunches.”
Manager Davey Martinez said the bunt and double steal are a signal that the Nats must alter their strategy a bit find a different way to score to win games and can’t wait for home runs.
“Yeah, like I said, we have to play baseball, the game of baseball,” Martinez said. “We’ll bunt. We’ll try to steal when possible. We’ll do things to try to score some runs. We had opportunities today. We had bases loaded one time and tried to score. But we also did some good things, too. Matt Adams continues to swing the bat well. Trea. They all. Harp’s at-bats today were good. He got the base hit. He hit the ball hard. He struck out, but if you’re a guy like him that hits balls over the fence, you’re gonna strike out.”
Eaton went 0-for-3, but scored a run, walked twice and stole a base. He said the Nats must emphasize some small ball principles with the offense unable to put together enough scoring chances like they were used to last season and in the recent past.
“If we’re not going to rake like we have in the past, we’re going to need to,” Eaton said of small ball tactics. “We’ve got to do the small things correctly. If we’re not going to have four or five guys hitting .320 with 40 (homers) at the end of the season, we’ve got to play small ball. We’ve got to move runners. We’ve got to bunt when we have to. We’ve got to steal bags when we have to. And get some momentum in our direction.”
While the Nats could not put together the big inning, the Braves were busy building on their lead. They took leads of 2-0, 6-2 and 8-3. Atlanta scored a combined four runs on six hits in the middle of the game to extend their advantage. They hit five doubles off Strasburg.
But after the second inning, the Nats relied only on three homers, two of them solo shots, to score runs. They were never able to have an inning with more than one hit until the eighth frame.
“That was difference in the game,” said Wieters. “They were able to put one three-run inning up there and when they score crooked numbers and you don’t, it’s going to be tough to win so hopefully tomorrow we’ll get that same situation and put up some crooked numbers.”