ATLANTA - Sean Doolittle, still on something of an emotional high after notching a five-out save Saturday night, was asked about the significance of extending himself beyond his normal workload for this particular game.
“I think just where we’re at right now in the season - the standings, against the Braves, especially after losing a tough one last night - I don’t know if tonight was necessarily a must-win game, but it was definitely a big win for us,” he said. “It was kind of all hands on deck.”
Doolittle was talking specifically about Saturday night’s 5-3 win, but he might as well have been talking about any of the six games the Nationals and Braves have played against each other in the last month.
With only one exception - Thursday’s blowout win by Washington - these have all been tense, grind-it-out, down-to-the-wire games. And given that the National League East title is at stake, these have all felt like legitimate pennant race contests.
“They’ve been intense,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “I don’t necessarily feel like it’s do-or-die. But at the same time, the games have been close, good games. I feel like both rosters are pretty similar. They’ve got a lot of talent up and down the roster. And I think that’s why we have that battle. We’re similar. Our lineups are deep. And the pitching’s good. Hopefully, we come out on top.”
So far in 2019, the Nationals have. They’re now 5-3 against Atlanta this season. They swept a two-game series here in May. They lost two of three last month in D.C. And they’ve now won two of three this weekend heading into Sunday night’s finale.
And the losses have all been close. On June 22, the Nats blew a late 7-4 lead en route to a 13-9 loss. The following day, they lost 4-3 in 10 innings. And then came Friday night’s game at SunTrust Park, when Victor Robles’ two-run homer with two outs in the top of the ninth tied the game but Fernando Rodney’s meltdown in the bottom of the ninth handed the Braves a 4-3 victory.
That’s actually been a recurring theme for the Nationals for a while now, no matter who they’ve played. Saturday night represented the 27th consecutive game in which they’ve either been ahead or tied in the seventh inning or later. Their starting pitchers haven’t taken the loss in any of those 27 games, the longest such streak in the major league since the Giants did it. The New York Giants. In 1916.
The streak will be put to the test tonight when the Nationals send Joe Ross to the mound for his first big league start of the season. With Austin Voth dealing with a sore shoulder, the club is forced to promote Ross from Triple-A Fresno and hope he fares better than he did in 17 relief appearances earlier this season (11.05 ERA).
Then again, the Nats lineup will take its hacks against Kevin Gausman, who they torched for eight runs in one inning on May 29.
The safest assumption of all, though, is that tonight’s game will come down to the wire. It’ll be another tense affair. And it’ll only be a precursor of the drama that’s still to come.
The Nationals and Braves still play each other 10 more times after this series, including a three-game set on South Capitol Street next week.
This is when it starts getting fun.
“They’re fun. They’re really fun,” manager Davey Martinez said. “We’re in the dugout. Guys are chanting. There’s a lot of energy. (Pitching coach Paul Menhart) wouldn’t let me stand up today. He told me to sit down. And I couldn’t do it. I kept standing up. He’d tell me: ‘Stay down.’ And I’d say: ‘I can’t. Sorry.’ “