ATLANTA -- It might be a little too late for the Braves to overtake the Nationals in the National League East race. But this weekend, they have taken advantage of their last chance to make a statement against this Nationals club that they could meet in the postseason.
As the Braves entered this weekend's series against the Nationals, there was reason to wonder whether they would rebound after getting swept by the Brewers. But over the past two days, they have shown resiliency.
Feeding off the adrenaline of Friday night's thrilling victory at Turner Field, the Braves erased an early deficit Saturday and proved patient enough in the eighth inning to make another statement with a 5-4 win over the Nationals.
"At this point of the year, it's a playoff atmosphere and you've got to find ways to win," Jason Heyward said. "Any way you can do it, whether it's ugly, pretty or what have you. It's just huge to win two games after losing three in a row. You don't want teams to gain ground behind you and you want to gain ground on this team in front of you."
The Braves moved another step toward clinching a National League Wild Card entry with the assistance of the home runs by Heyward and Freddie Freeman, who finished a double short of the cycle. But the decisive eighth inning was aided by two walks and the Ryan Mattheus pitch that grazed Andrelton Simmons' jersey with the bases loaded.
Less than 24 hours after scoring the winning run courtesy on Ian Desmond's errant ninth-inning throw, Simmons worked the count to 2-2 before Mattheus' fastball came just a hair too far inside. The Nats reliever allowed the Braves to load the bases courtesy of consecutive one-out walks to Dan Uggla and Chipper Jones after a leadoff single by David Ross, who was removed for pinch-runner Jeff Baker.
"It seems like we win some ballgames some crazy ways, but we'll take it," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "Sometimes you lose games some crazy ways also."
Even with the two wins to open this series, the Braves are 6 1/2 games behind the Nationals in the NL East race with 16 games left to play.
"Winning this series makes it more realistic," Heyward said. "Our mindset is to go after the division until you can't. That's the way you have to look at it."
Since losing 10 of the first 14 games played in this season series, the Braves have won three straight games against the Nationals. If they hold on to their sizable lead in the NL Wild Card standings, this could prove important from a psychological standpoint if these two teams meet again in the postseason.
"This is the No. 1 team in the National League," Heyward said. "We're playing them tough and we've beaten them twice [in a row] now. We've got a chance to sweep them tomorrow."
While the Braves were satisfied by strengthening their postseason hopes, the Nationals were upset about how the tide of this game changed after first-base umpire Marvin Hudson ruled first baseman Adam LaRoche's foot came off the bag as he stretched to catch a throw from Nationals starter Edwin Jackson in the sixth inning after the pitcher bobbled a comebacker off the bat of Martin Prado.
The mild-mannered LaRoche had a few words with Hudson before manager Davey Johnson had a heated argument that resulted in his ejection. Moments later, Heyward added to Jackson's woes by drilling a towering, game-tying two-run home run over the right-center-field wall.
"It's all about momentum in ballgames," Johnson said. "Here my pitcher is really throwing a great ballgame and the only thing he's given up are extra-base hits, but other than that, he's really pitched a great ballgame and we've got a lead and the middle of the lineup is coming up. We don't need to give them a gift. That's what was concerning me. He gives me that inning, our bullpen's set up, we win the game."
All of the damage Jackson incurred in the first five innings came courtesy of Freeman, who got his three-hit day started shortly after getting upset at himself for not recording an in the ugly second inning that allowed the Nationals to build a 4-0 lead.
After Braves starter Tommy Hanson walked Jesus Flores in the second inning, Freeman fielded Steve Lombardozzi grounder and was set to throw to second base before he could not get a grip on the baseball. This allowed Lombardozzi enough time to reach safely. Jackson followed with a sacrifice bunt that Hanson fielded before slipping and making an errant throw that allowed both Flores and Lombardozzi to score.
"That second inning we just kind of played Bad News Bears baseball," Gonzalez said. "We were lucky to only give up two runs."
Freeman tripled to begin the bottom of the second inning and scored on an Uggla double. One inning later, he moved closer to his first three-hit game since Aug. 1 with a solo homer. Two innings later, Heyward hit the home run that tied the game and kept the Braves' division hopes alive for at least one more day.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.