When the Braves produced a 6-2 fourth-inning lead for Tim Hudson, who had simply been dominant throughout his career against the Nationals, it seemed like it might be a rather stress-free night. But on the way to converting his 34th consecutive save opportunity, Mike Gonzalez surrendered a ninth-inning run and didn't breathe easy until Austin Kearns' potential game-tying liner found Jeff Francoeur's glove in right field.
Kearns' game-ending lineout, with runners on the corners, secured what was just the sixth win in the 28 one-run games the Braves have played this year. Playing a major factor in this victory was the fact that they recorded three hits in five at-bats with two outs and runners in scoring position.
While this was a small sample size from just one night, it also could have been a sign that change is on the horizon. Heading into this game, Atlanta had hit just .222 with runners in scoring position and two outs.
"We had a lot of clutch hits," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "That's we need to do in the [season's] second half."
By the time the Braves complete a three-game series against the first-place Phillies next weekend in Philadelphia, they will know whether they are legitimate playoff contenders. They never provided this indication during the season's first half. But a new half has arrived, and they don't view their 6 1/2-game deficit in the National League East standings as being insurmountable.
"We're not even close to being out of this at all," said shortstop Brent Lillibridge, whose third consecutive multihit game was highlighted by his two-out, two-run double in the second off Nationals starter Tim Redding.
Lillibridge, who has softened the blow while Yunel Escobar rests his ailing left shoulder, provided the evening's spark, and All-Star catcher Brian McCann delivered the big blow with a three-run third-inning double. This was business as usual for McCann, who has five hits in 10 at-bats with the bases loaded this season.
While McCann was once again proving clutch, many of the evening's other events weren't exactly predictable. Battling control problems that might have been a product of the inactivity he experienced during the All-Star break, Hudson surrendered five earned runs and nine hits in 6 2/3 innings.
During his previous six starts against the Nationals, Hudson had allowed a total of five earned runs. In addition, during his three previous starts against them this year, he'd surrendered a total of three earned runs -- which matched the total he allowed in Friday night's sixth and seventh innings.
"My location wasn't very good," said Hudson, who saw the Nationals also prove clutch while scoring three of the five runs charged to him with two outs. "My sinker was moving good. I just didn't have good control."
Still, even with Hudson battling control on the way to his 10th win of the season -- three of which have come against the Nationals -- the Braves managed enough offense with the help of a couple guys who were due to come through in the clutch. Mark Kotsay had a two-out RBI single to cap the four-run fourth inning. Then Johnson increased Atlanta's lead to 7-3 with his decisive two-out RBI single in the sixth off Jason Bergmann.
Coincidently for both Kotsay and Johnson, this was just their seventh hits in an identical 31 at-bats with two outs and runners in scoring position.
"Normally we are on the wrong end of these kind of games," Hudson said. "We had some timely hits to score some runs. ... Tonight was the kind of baseball we've wanted to play all year."
Though it was a little more nerve-wracking than he desired, Gonzalez allowed the Braves to begin the second half on high note by making just enough timely pitches. He got in trouble when Willie Harris followed a Felipe Lopez one-out single with a double. Paul Lo Duca followed with an RBI chopper that was skillfully converted into an out by Johnson.
Gonzalez, who was making his 11th appearance since returning from Tommy John elbow ligament reconstruction surgery, then hit Cristian Guzman with a pitch before seeing Kearns hit a sharp liner that Francoeur grabbed in right field.
Physically, Gonzalez said he felt great. But he felt the inactivity he had during the All-Star break led to some inconsistent control.
"Today was the worst day I've felt since Tommy John [surgery]," Gonzalez said. "I felt a little rusty, but I still got it done."