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Instant Classic-Braves 3, Nationals 2 (10 innings), Braves alone in 1st place
I have no idea where to start. So let's start at the beginning.
The Braves offense looked pathetic, as predicted. Livan Hernandez was throwing slop, and nobody could hit it for the first 6 innings. The Nationals got a run in the 3rd, after a leadoff single by Brian Schneider, 2 groundouts getting him over, and a 2 out single by Brad Wilkerson getting him in. They scored again in the 5th, after a series of lucky hits and a 2 out seeing-eye single up the middle by Jose Guillen.
Smoltz, really pitched well, albeit not vintage John Smoltz, but it was awesome anyway. After giving up the 1 run in each the 3rd inning and 5th inning, he got it together and shut down the Nati0nals through the 8th. It was a classic pitcher's duel that you dream about in important games. Smoltz went 8 innings, giving up 2 runs on 8 hits, 2 walks, and 4 strikeouts; and got a no-decision. Livan Hernandez went 8 innings, giving up only 1 run on 5 hits, a walk, and 5 strikeouts.
The Braves offense came alive in the 7th. With one out, Chipper Jones hit what would have been a home run, except Brad Wilkerson brought it back over the wall and robbed him of a homer. The next batter, Adam LaRoche, did put one on the board, with a long home run in the right field seats. After Ryan Langerhans singled to left, Brian McCann hit a long flyball that looked like it would be a game-tying double, except that it was caught by Guillen on the warning track to end the inning.
Smoltz got the Braves through the 8th, and Jim Brower and John Foster got them through the top of the 9th with no damage.
In the 9th, Andruw Jones led off against Chad Cordero staring at a 2-1 deficit. The Braves crowd was really into it, getting about as loud as they've been since the 1996 play0ffs. Andruw hit the first pitch into the left-center field gap for a double. Chipper then hit the first pitch to center for a single, but it looked like it might be caught at the beginning of the play so Andruw had to hold up at 3rd. LaRoche then hit a sacrifice fly to deep left to score Andruw and tie the game. With 1 out, Wilson Betemit (pinch-running for Chipper) was thrown out trying to steal 2nd. Langerhans then grounded out to end the inning.
Reitsma (3-2) got the Washington hitters 1-2-3 in the top of the 10th.
I don't consider Intangibles as a factor often, but here I think it has its legitimate points. Let's talk about each team's braintrust briefly. Frank Robinson and Jim Bowden have been incredibly hard on their players the past few days (and season, for that matter) with Robinson saying publicly that his players should play through injuries and "man up" while Jim Bowden has been putting down the offense, saying that it's "underperforming" (despite the "hitters" on their team). I'll let you see the obvious flaws with that, and then show the Braves' braintrust in contrast. They've always kept everything in-house, and are always nothing but optimistic, and the players love it. You could see the Braves' confidence while Frank Robinson and his players had the air come out of their sails. Bobby Cox is probably the best manager ever at keeping his players at an even keel.
But he screwd up in the 10th, but the Braves won anyway. The catcher Brian McCann singled to center to lead off the 10th off of Mike Stanton. McCann was pinch-run for by Jeff Francoeur, one of the few Brave hitters left. Julio Franco then pinch-bunt Francoeur to 2nd. I can understand the bunt, but why not use a pitcher to bunt instead of burning your top pinch-hitter to do it? Johnny Estrada is apparently well enough to catch, but not to hit, so if the Braves had played on this would have been an interesting situation. With an open base, the Nationals opted to walk Rafael Furcal to get to the slumping rookie Kelly Johnson. Johnson popped out (and couldn't be pinch-hit for by Francoeur, because of him pinch-running, and there were no better options left to pinch-hit). After Luis Ayala relieved with 2 outs and runners on 1st and 2nd, he hit Marcus Giles with a pitch. Andruw then hit with the bases loaded, Ayala was nowhere close on the first 3 pitches, and the 4th pitch just missed for the game winning run: a walk-off walk. That conjured up memories of Game 6 of the 1999 NLCS.
Offensive contributors: Andruw for MVP. He was 2-4 with a double, a walk, an RBI, and a run scored. Chipper was 2-4. LaRoche was 1-3 with the 7th inning homer, 2 RBIs, and a run scored. Brian McCann was 1-3 with a walk. Rafael Furcal was 1-4 with a walk.
The Braves, as noted in the title, are now in sole possession of 1st place. Washington is a game back (they are also 3-7 in their last 10 games, and 5-14 in the last 19). Philadelphia and New York are 4.5 games back, and Florida 5 games back.
Tim Hudson will face Esteban Loaiza in Game 2 of the series. A win would guarantee sole possession of 1st at the end of the series.