Somewhere, probably in northern Georgia, someone is writing about how the plucky Atlanta Braves pecked away in the ninth inning, using steely resolve and courage to defeat an up-and-coming Washington Nationals team with a clutch walk-off hit after two outs.
I suppose that's one way to look at what happened.
After pounding arguably the N.L.'s best pitcher in the first half of the season, surviving a melt-down of epic proportions from a formerly-trusted set-up man, and enough base-running blunders to make Lou Brock cry, the Nationals still found themselves in position to beat the 96-win pace Braves and take two out of three from them to start the second half.
But instead of turning to his closer in a tied game, manager Davey Johnson gave the ball to rookie Ryan Mattheus, a veteran of just 15 Major League innings pitched. Mattheus walked the first batter he faced, and the rest, as they say, was history. In this case, history will say the Braves beat the Nats 9-8 in their final at bat. But as with all history lessons, there was much more to the story than meets the eye.
All Drew Storen, who has pitched one inning since July 10, could do was watch things unfold from his perch in the bullpen. He warmed up along side Mattheus, but since the Nats could not take the lead in the top of the ninth, Johnson managed to a statistic, going with Mattheus in the non-save situation. It cost him the game.
Mattheus issued a five-pitch walk to pinch-hitter Brooks Conrad, missing the strike zone by a mile with his last pitch. The Braves bunted Conrad up to second, giving the Nats an out, and when Martin Prado grounded to short, Conrad inexplicably tried to advance and was gunned out by Ian Desmond, one of several fine plays the shortstop came up with in the series.
The Nats then allowed Prado to take second without a throw, and Johnson called for Mattheus to walk All-Star catcher Brian McCann, who had already homered off Sean Burnett earlier. At that point, Mattheus put away his best pitch, a 94-MPH four-seam fastball, and threw two sliders to fellow rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman. Freeman laced the second one he saw to right field, driving in Prado from second.
The final was the culmination of a game of mental and physical mistakes for the Nats. They finally got their bats going, clobbering All-Star Jair Jurrgens for six runs on eight hits and two walks in five innings, giving the burgeoning superstar his worse beating of the season. But they also had two runners make outs on the base paths immediately preceding scoring hits and lost their starting pitcher to an injury when he ran into the catcher trying to score.
Combine that with a throwing error by backup catcher Jesus Flores and four stolen bases against, and this was an ugly game regardless of the outcome.
Perhaps the ugliest part of the game came in the bottom of the fifth, when the Braves scored five runs off relievers Henry Rodriguez and Sean Burnett. Rodriguez cruised through two innings of work in relief of Tom Gorzelanny, who left after two innings after injuring his ankle in a collision with McCann scoring on Roger Bernadina's triple. Gorzelanny was not effective anyway, giving up two runs on one hit, three walks and a wild pitch.
Sent out to start a third inning of relief, Rodriguez lost his stuff. A double, hit by pitch and infield single scored a run and brought up left-handed hitting McCann. Johnson summoned his only left-handed reliever, Burnett. On his second pitch, McCann punished a 91-MPH sinker, and three runs scored, which tied the game at six. A walk, hit and ground out produced another run for Atlanta before Burnett could get out of the inning.
Burnett was arguably the Nationals best pitcher last season, but he's been a liability to the Nats pen this year, with a 5.67 ERA and K-rate less than half of what it was last season. Unless he's hiding an injury, he's gone from the best to the worst in less than a season, speaking to the volatile nature of relief pitching.
There were a lot of culprits in this game for the Nats, but right up until Freeman laced one into the corner with two down in the ninth the Nats were in position to win. I'm not sure if that's good or bad right now.
THE GOOD: Danny Espinosa was a double short of the cycle, with three hits, including his 17th home run. Roger Bernadina went 2-for-4 in the leadoff spot, scored three times and stole two bases.
THE BAD: Jayson Werth. He went 0-for-5 with a K, the only Nats starter to not get a hit. He left four on base.
THE UGLY: Sean Burnett. The guy is simply not doing his job right now.
THE STATS: 11 hits, three walks, 10 strikeouts. 3-for-10 with RISP, six LOB, zero GIDP. E: Flores (1)
NEXT GAME: Monday at Houston Astros at 8:05 pm EDT. Jason Marquis (7-4, 4.05) faces Jordan Lyles (0-4, 4.60).
NATS NOTES: Jerry Hairston, Jr. will be activated off the Disabled List for Monday's game in Houston. Brian Bixler was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse after the loss to make room on the active roster.
The Nats loss drops the Nats back under .500 at 47-48, a half-game behind the Mets for third place in the N.L. East and one game ahead of streaking Florida for last place in the division.