WASHINGTON -- While the National League East has not been as exciting as expected, the Braves and Nationals have certainly staged a number of thrilling battles against each other this year.
But there has not been an inning that provided more unexpected events than the one that concluded the thrilling 6-5 win the Nationals claimed over the Braves in the first game of Tuesday's doubleheader at Nationals Park.
"You can't assume anything," Braves rookie Evan Gattis said. "That's baseball. Nobody knows what's going to happen. We're all waiting for it to happen. It can happen to anybody."
Gattis' go-ahead home run off Tyler Clippard in the eighth inning provided the Braves a lead that blossomed to two runs when the Nationals committed a pair of errors in the top of the ninth. Suddenly, Atlanta handed a two-run lead to closer Craig Kimbrel, who had allowed just two runs in the 47 1/3 innings he had completed since last blowing a save on May 7.
But instead of reducing their magic number to clinch the division to two, the Braves spent the ninth inning watching Kimbrel endure his roughest outing of the season. The dominant closer issued two walks, surrendered an infield single and suffered his first blown save in more than four months when Denard Span's one-out grounder slipped between the legs of sure-handed shortstop Andrelton Simmons.
"I feel we've got as good or better [of a] ballclub," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "We've had very little success against their bullpen, so it's nice to score some runs off their closer, but I reckon we haven't hardly scored off their bullpen and they've roughed mine up a little."
With the win, the Nationals strengthened their position to gain a Wild Card entry and moved to within nine games of the Braves in the NL East. Atlanta's magic number to clinch is at four with 12 games remaining.
While there has not been much drama in this race over the past two months, the Braves and Nationals have now played nine one-run games this season. In fact, eight of the past 10 games played between these teams have been decided by one run.
"There are times when you go out there and hit every spot and give up runs, and there are times when you go out there and have no idea where it's going and you don't give up any runs," Kimbrel said. "That's just part of it. That just wasn't the case today."
In between walking two of the first three batters he faced, Kimbrel surrendered an infield single to Wilson Ramos. With the bases loaded and no outs, Chad Tracy hit a grounder to the right side that scored Adam LaRoche and put runners at second and third with the Braves leading by one run.
"I was a little shocked he had the infield back in the ninth there," Johnson said. "I don't know if that would've been a clean hit if they were up front, but I liked the fact that if we put the ball in play, we were going to be tied."
The game would have been tied had Simmons not botched Span's routine grounder. As the ball traveled to center field, Jeff Kobernus jogged toward the plate and Anthony Rendon raced from second base to score the winning run in uncontested fashion.
This conclusion was anything but predictable. Kimbrel had not allowed three runs in any of his previous 224 career appearances. As for Simmons, he is in the midst of producing one of the greatest statistical seasons ever recorded by a shortstop.
"I just didn't do my job," Simmons said. "I didn't catch the ball. That's all I can tell you. I should have caught the ball and I didn't."
Span understandably did not feel good about the challenge that awaited he and his teammates as they entered the bottom of the ninth. But as the inning progressed, it became apparent that this was simply one of those very rare days when Kimbrel proved to be mortal.
"Yeah, I'm going to be honest with you, when they got that extra run in the ninth, I was like, 'It's not going to be too good for us,'" Span said. "He's the best closer in the game, and once he walked the leadoff hitter, I was like, 'You know what? We might have a chance.' He didn't look himself."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less