Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  By JAY CLEMONS  |  Last updated 8/17/13
ATLANTA Here are three things we learned from the Braves' 3-2 victory over the Nationals, extending Atlanta's seasonal hold over Washington to 11-3 (head to head): 1. Justin Upton already has a Turner Field ritual for game-winning homers On April 6, just his fifth game in a Braves uniform, Upton belted a walk-off homer in the 9th to lift his team to an improbable 6-5 victory over the Cubs. (Atlanta trailed 5-1 in the eighth inning.) Fast forward to Friday, as Upton (two hits, one run, RBI) cracked the 2-2 delivery of Nats reliever Ian Krol over the left-center wall in the 10th inning, clinching his club's third straight win. "I had faced (Krol) a few times in (Washington) D.C." recalled Upton about his previous encounters against the southpaw during the Aug. 5-7 series. "In that situation, you're looking for a strike and get on base." In hindsight, it was a signature shot for the 25-year-old slugger by all accounts, his third career walk-off hit against the Nationals even if neither Upton nor Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez originally believed it to be a home run. "I wasn't sure," said Justin Upton. "I was busting out of the box, hoping for three (bags) and definitely thinking two." Gonzalez said: "I didn't think (the ball would) be out; I thought it'd be top of the wall, from my angle. But it carried enough, it carried enough." After the solo blast, as Upton bounced around the base paths, his celebratory teammates came armed with a plastic bottle of water at home plate. As Upton approached the swarm, a small swath of water flashed right by him eerily similar to the April 6 walk-off. On that night, Justin and B.J. Upton became the first pair of brothers in major league history to homer in the ninth inning of the same game. It was a wet, but joyous occasion for an Atlanta team that would rocket to a 12-1 start in early April. One inning prior, the Braves were in serious danger of falling behind the Nationals, after Adam LaRoche led off the 9th with a single against Craig Kimbrel. A few pitches later, Washington catcher Wilson Ramos lined a shot up the middle for an apparent single, but second baseman Paul Janish snagged the ball while diving, rolled over on his butt and threw an accurate, off-balance to Andrelton Simmons in hopes of securing the force-out as second. It was a huge play, especially after pinch-hitter Chad Tracy stroked a single that would almost certainly have resulted in a Nationals run. With a temporary reprieve, Kimbrel settled down and got the remaining two outs, without allowing a ball to leave the infield. Gonzalez marveled at Janish's fielding prowess on that game-saving force-out and his night, in general, beaming that Janish "knows his role, he's professional." The short-term occupancy is the result of Dan Uggla landing on the 15-day DL (LASIK surgery), and Tyler Pastornicky being sidelined for the season, due to injury (ACL tear). 2. Bryce Harper continues to be a lightning-rod of displeasure for Atlanta fans ... and a magnet for Braves pitches Harper was plunked twice on Friday, once from Wood (nine strikeouts, one run allowed over 6.1 innings) and then reliever Luis Avilan. For the latter, Avilan surrendered a double, hit-by-pitch and Jayson Werth single in a two-out sequence, enabling the Nationals to deadlock the score at 2-all. With Ryan Zimmerman on second and the Turner Field crowd whipped into a frenzied mix of loud cheers and booming jeers (against Harper), Avilan struck the 20-year-old phenom in the back, momentarily forcing Harper to double over in pain. "We got a little sideways in the eighth inning," said Gonzalez, referring to the double-HBP-single sequence from Washington's hitters. Regarding Harper, Gonzalez was empathically diplomatic. "You're not going to (intentionally) hit harper, the (potential) winning run, lefty vs. lefty, with two outs. That's ridicuolus," reasoned Gonzalez. "He's upset with it, and I don't blame him nobody likes to get hit but it wasn't intentional. It's not even close." Avilan echoed his skipper's sentiment. "God, I hope (Harper) doesn't think I did it on purpose," said Avilan, who has only hit three batters all season. "We (were leading) 2-1, and I didn't want to put the winning run on first. I feel bad ... it definitely wasn't on purpose." There was no subsequent fallout from the hit-by-pitch, fight-wise, as Harper calmly took his base at first and openly chatted with Freddie Freeman during the pitching change (Avilan to Luis Ayala). Werth then tied things with his RBI single. For the season, Harper has been hit by four pitches, with three coming against the Braves including the Aug. 6 dustup with Atlanta's Julio Teheran. On that night, Harper and Teheran exchanged tense words after the hits batsman, riling up the crowd at Nationals Park and prompting both bullpens to join the standoff on the field of play. It even spawned a short-lived brouhaha between the teams' official Twitter accounts duringafter the game (drawing national attention). Social-media hijinks aside, Harper (1 for 2 on Friday) has a knack for getting under the skin of Braves fans, whether he's imitating Chipper Jones after home runs or generally bringing a Pete Rose-esque attitude and intensity to every on-field act, no matter how trivial. From a long-term perspective, Harper's presence could help shape Braves-Nationals into baseball's best rivalry. 3. The day will come when the Braves and Nationals scratch and claw for the National League East title on the season's final day ... but it won't be this year With a 15 12-game lead over the second-place Nationals (59-62), it would take a substantial slide for the Braves to fall short of capturing their 15th division crown since 1991 and first since 2005. "That's a storybook win," said Wood. "That's as good as it gets there." Entering the three-game set, Washington was ostensibly in sweep-or-else mode, knowing it had only six remaining shots at cutting into Atlanta's sizable lead. Counting Friday's loss, the Nationals now must go on a 33-8 tear to finish at 92 victories. And within that hypothetical work with me here the Braves (75-47) would have to go 17-23 to complete the implausible tie by season's end, thus resulting in a (likely) one-game playoff for the East title. Why so implausible, you ask? Let us count thee ways: For the season, the Braves have a cumulative ERA of 2.63 against the NL East (thank you for the nugget, Chip Caray). Counting Wood, Brandon Beachy and Paul Maholm, Atlanta has the luxury of riding a formidable six-man rotation for the next few weeks, or perhaps through the regular season. Since May 9, Braves closer Craig Kimbrel has allowed just one run in 35 innings. His tallies during that span: 28 saves, 0.26 ERA and 0.88 WHIP. Washington, which kicked off a 10-game road swing on Friday (Braves, Cubs, Royals), has another 10-game road trip in early September (Phillies, Marlins, Mets). For the month of August, the Braves pitchers have the following tallies: 12-2, 2.40 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and 11327 K-BB rate. In the same span, Heyward (.404 batting average, .466 on-base percentage, 1.100 OPS) and Justin Upton (.389 batting, .476 OBP, 1.328) have been carrying the Braves at the top of the order. Based on current records, the Braves will finish the season with 29 straight games against below-.500 clubs (Aug. 30-Sept. 29).
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