In the dugout, manager Manny Acta told his players to find some energy and try to outlast the Braves. Acta felt the opposing club looked lethargic.
Outfielder Elijah Dukes turned out to be the most fired up and continued to show his teammates that he's the man with the big bat. His double in the 14th inning proved to be the difference.
With the bases loaded, one out and reliever Jeff Bennett on the mound, Dukes hit the ball down the third-base line to score all three runners. Dukes had gone 0-for-6 prior to the at-bat and acknowledged that he was tired during the game. Before the last at-bat, it took a fan in the stands to let him know that he was hitless in the game.
"There was a fan saying, 'How does it feel to be [0-for-6]?' I was like, 'Oh, yeah. I am.' I was like, 'Bear down a little bit and don't be taking the at-bat for granted,'" Dukes said. "Other guys were hitting the ball today. I was a little tired, basically. I was taking at-bats for granted. ... It was the 10th inning when I realized I was dying out there. I said, 'I have to do something.'"
It was the bullpen that shut the door on the Braves. Seven relievers combined to pitch eight shutout innings and strike out six batters. Steven Shell ended up being the winning pitcher, while Joel Hanrahan picked up his eighth save of the season.
But Acta gave the most props to left-hander Michael Hinckley, who pitched the ninth inning without giving up a run to take the game into extra innings. All three outs were against right-handed hitters. The biggest out was Chipper Jones, who ended the inning by grounding out to second baseman Anderson Hernandez.
"Hinckley had to go through the heart of the order that inning," Acta said. "Every one of the relievers pitched very well."
Hinckley started his career as a starter and was once the Nationals' top prospect. But shoulder trouble prevented him from making it to the big league rotation. It wasn't until this summer that the organization decided to make him a reliever, and the switch seems to have worked wonders.
Hinckley acknowledged that Sunday's game was a confidence booster for him.
"I'm thanking the Lord because he has given me this opportunity, and I'm working my butt off," Hinckley said. "I'm just trying to go out there, be aggressive and go after these hitters. Best thing I can do is throw strikes and not fall behind."
The Nationals got off to a good start against left-hander Jo-Jo Reyes in the top of the second inning, when Lastings Milledge hit his 14th home run of the season. But it went downhill during the next few innings for Washington.
With runners on first and third and one out in the second, Gregor Blanco singled to center to drive in Brandon Jones. After Martin Prado struck out for the second out of the inning, Jones hit what looked like a routine fly ball to Milledge in center field.
It looked like Milledge had a bead on it, but the ball never came close to his glove and dropped in for a two-run double. It turns out that Milledge lost the ball in the sun despite the fact that he had his sunglasses on.
"I saw it the whole way. In the end, it just got caught up in the sun," Milledge said. "I tried to stay with it as long as I could."
In the sixth, Prado singled to right to send Blanco home.
Alberto Gonzalez then cut the lead to 4-2 in the top of the seventh inning when he homered off Julian Tavarez.
Gonzalez came through again in the next inning against reliever Blaine Boyer. On an 0-1 pitch, Gonzalez blooped a ball to right field for a two-run double that tied the game. Gonzalez finished a triple short of the cycle.
Washington improved its record to 56-88. For the season, the Nationals were 12-6 against the Braves. But Acta was realistic about the situation. He said that pitchers Tom Glavine, Tim Hudson and John Smoltz were not available for most of those games because of serious injuries.
"This probably is the first time since I've been with this franchise that we had any type of success against the Braves," Acta said. "I think a lot had to do with Hudson, Smoltz and Glavine being out. We have to be realistic. The fight is a little even when you don't have to be facing those No. 1 guys. We had some injuries, and they had some. That's part of the game."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.