Sometimes, one play is all it takes to transform something promising into a cornucopia of agony. Sure, maybe agony is off the table in a lost season, but that doesn't mean the 7th inning of tonight's game against the Washington Nationals was any fun for Braves fans.
In short, a syzygy of defensive miscues combined to doom the Braves and Bud Norris, who had pitched spectacularly well in his debut in a Braves uniform. With the tying run on second in the form of Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos hit a ball up the middle. Newly-minted Braves shortstop Erick Aybar ranged to his left to snare it, but his throw was off target and insufficient to nail Ramos (who is blessed with catcher's speed). Given that there were two outs on the play, Zimmerman did not stop running and raced home; Freddie Freeman showed the requisite alertness in firing a strike to the plate, but for the second time in two games, AJ Pierzynski was unable to field the ball and cut down the tying run at the plate.
The run was unfairly charged to Norris, in combination with an arguably unfair error charged to Freeman on the play. (A mental mistake that won't be mentioned much is why Aybar even threw the ball in the first place; runners at the corners with two outs is still a workable situation.) After that, the Braves opted to walk Danny Espinosa intentionally, and Dusty Baker started punching the buttons on the managerial keyboard and pinch-hit for Stephen Strasburg with Matt den Dekker, who had just been called up to the big leagues as a roster replacement for the injured Ben Revere. In one of the few pitches from Norris that the Nationals were able to handle on the night, den Dekker stroked a double off the wall in right center to score both runners and cap the scoring on the night, giving the Nats a 3-1 victory.
Also of note is that AJ Pierzynski appeared to call time before the play, which was not granted by the home plate umpire. If time had been granted, or Aybar had held on to the ball, or Freeman had maybe made a more on-target throw, or Pierzynski had managed to catch the ball and apply the tag on Zimmerman, maybe the Braves come away with a win tonight. But sometimes, one play is all it takes.
With all that said, there were a lot of other notable goings-on in the game. Bud Norris was one of the biggest stories of the night: he started the game with a three-pitch punchout of Michael Taylor and immediately followed that with a four-pitch walk to Anthony Rendon. From then on, despite occasional minor bouts of not being able to hit the zone, he = kept the Nationals largely off balance. In the third, Danny Espinosa managed to rope a double off of Norris but it wasn't quite Norris' fault, as Espinosa pulled a pitch that was way low and outside, golfing it into the outfield and splitting an outfield shifted for him to hit it the other way. However, Stephen Strasburg fake-bunted and hit a tapper back to Norris, letting the Braves retire Espinosa after a rundown. Anthony Rendon would hit a ball fairly hard for the third out of the inning, but it was no trouble for Ender Inciarte in center field for the Braves.
Some real fireworks came in the fourth behind Norris. After Bryce Harper roped a hard-hit grounder for a single, Zimmerman knocked a hard liner into right-center. Inciarte had Zimmerman played to pull the ball, but raced over and made a last-second diving catch, and then immediately scampered up and threw an absolute bullet to first base for the double play. It's hard to do justice to this play in words, but it may very well end up being one of the defensive plays of the year, and the Braves are lucky to have Inciarte's defensive acumen on the field for them. Speaking of defensive plays, Aybar also made a nifty scoop and throw on a hard-hit grounder by Jayson Werth in the fifth. All-in-all, Norris and the defense kept the Nationals well-contained until that faithful seventh inning, when did the defense did Norris and the team in for good. Norris' final line was six hits, two walks, four strikeouts, and three runs (all earned) over seven innings of work: much better than many, including me, were expecting. Kudos to Norris for pulling it off, at least for tonight.
The Braves did score a run in this game, but it didn't come easily. Stephen Strasburg did yield a leadoff walk to Inciarte but promptly erased him on a double play ball from Aybar. The Cuban duo of Hector Olivera and Adonis Garcia both hit singles in the second, but the remaining hitters were unable to advance them further. In the fourth, Garcia again singled and for some reason attempted to take second on a ball that was about as routine of a single as possible; he was gunned down by about five steps by Michael Taylor, the Nationals' center fielder. Strasburg, perhaps befuddled by the poor fundamentals on display, walked Nick Markakis and Hector Olivera on his next nine pitches. This set up AJ Pierzynski, who given his poor microcosmic run of late, seemed fated to hit into a double play to end the threat. However, Pierzynski swung at the first pitch and lined it to left-center. The good news was that Olivera scored to give the Braves a lead; the bad news is that Pierzynski for some reason decided to pull an Adonis Garcia and amble into second, where he was easy pickings for Taylor's second outfield assist of the inning. Strasburg would knock off Jace Peterson on three pitches to end the inning and keep the damage to one run.
More silly baserunning occurred in the fifth, when Ender Inciarte singled and was caught stealing ahead of Freddie Freeman. Inciarte certainly has the speed to rack up steals, but running ahead of Freddie Freeman, especially with two outs, is not a great idea.
After the Nationals took the lead in the seventh, their bullpen duo of Shawn Kelley and Felipe Rivero, who combined to combust on Opening Day and give the Braves a lead, deftly navigated the Atlanta bats. Things got more interesting in the ninth with Jonathan "the Undertaker" Papelbon on the mound to close out the game. After Paps struck out Freeman, Garcia and Markakis hit back-to-back singles to put the tying runs on base. Hector Olivera rolled the first pitch he saw from Papelbon out to short, but he hustled down the line and beat the relay throw from second to keep hope alive. However, the next man up was AJ Pierzynski, and since the universe apparently has it out for him this week, Pierzynski swung through a Papelbon fastball to send the game into the books.
Some notable performances for the Braves were Freeman's 0-4 with two strikeouts, despite historically hitting Strasburg well, and Adonis Garcia's 3-for-4 performance. Garcia also made a nifty catch in foul territory. Both Alexi Ogando and potential phenom John Gant made their Braves debuts in this game, and they each pitched a scoreless frame, both allowing one hit and one walk. (On the downside, it looks like Gant is not being stretched out, given his one-inning appearance.) Drew Stubbs stole a base as a pinch-runner.
The Braves have another off-day tomorrow (who makes these schedules?) but will look to garner their first win on Friday evening against the Cardinals. (Seriously, who makes these schedules? How is it acceptable to have a two-game series to start a season?)