ATLANTA -- Sean Burnett got the ground ball the Nationals wanted.
The Nationals and Braves had only managed one run each through 8 1/2 innings Friday night, and Washington had a chance to make it a full nine. With runners on the corners and one out on the board, Burnett got pinch-hitter Tyler Pastornicky to bounce a ground ball right at shortstop Ian Desmond. The sure-handed Desmond made the quick throw home, but it went far wide of catcher Kurt Suzuki, allowing Simmons to score from third and hand the Nats a 2-1 loss at Turner Field.
"I've got a prayer, basically, with Andrelton Simmons at third. Just tried to get it as quick as I could and get rid of it," Desmond said. "If I set, he's already sliding in, celebrating. There was a probably 1-in-10 chance, and I didn't get him.
"No one in here is hanging their head. More scratching their head than hanging their head, I guess."
Based on the standings, this mid-September showdown at should have lacked some of the urgency and drama it might have featured several weeks ago, when the Nationals and Braves were in a closer battle for the National League East lead. Washington has since pulled out ahead, cruising toward a division title and inching ever closer to a playoff berth. Atlanta has fallen behind in that race but staked a strong claim to the top NL Wild Card spot.
Even after the loss, the Nationals are still 7 1/2 games ahead in the NL East, and their magic number to clinch a playoff berth of any kind is still four. But none of that seemed to matter Friday night in a playoff-style atmosphere with postseason-worthy pitching before a crowd of 41,797.
"This is playoff baseball," right fielder Jayson Werth said. "Every team we play for the rest of the way is in the hunt and hungry, so these are the types of games we're going to play for the next six weeks. We're going to have some tests, and I think we're up to the challenge. More times than not, I think we're going to win that game."
Werth's claim was backed up by the starting performance of Ross Detwiler. The left-hander wasn't racking up strikeouts like the Atlanta pitching staff, particularly starter Kris Medlen (career-high 13) and closer Craig Kimbrel (three on just 10 pitches in the ninth), but he did grind through six tough innings allowing only one run on seven hits and a walk with five strikeouts.
Detwiler needed 86 pitches to get through his first five innings, saying afterward that it felt like the Braves were fouling off everything. He gave up one run in the fourth, when Freddie Freeman fouled off "like 35 pitches" (in Detwiler's tongue-in-cheek estimation; it was actually only six) then doubled to left and later scored on Simmons' sacrifice fly. But Detwiler came back out and breezed through an eight-pitch sixth inning to set up Washington's bullpen.
"Det showed me something," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "This kind of game, a little more attention on it, and he was in trouble in the fourth and fifth and got out of it. And he finished strong in the sixth. He was right at his pitch limit by then. But all the pitches up to then, they were tough pitches. It was good. Good game for Det."
Bryce Harper evened it up as the leadoff hitter in the sixth, taking a big cut at the first pitch he saw from Medlen and lining his 19th homer of the year into the left-field stands. It was Harper's seventh homer since Aug. 29, a span during which he's hit .371 (23-for-62) with three doubles, a triple, 13 RBIs and 16 runs.
The Nationals needed that run, too, given the way Medlen was pitching. The Braves have won Medlen's last 20 starts dating back to 2010, and he left the night with a 1.62 ERA.
"I couldn't even believe that he hit that ball where he hit it," Medlen said. "It was an unbelievable swing, and you see why the guy is as good as he is. I made a mistake and he made me pay for it. But we came out on top in the game."
But the result didn't leave too much of a dark cloud hanging over the Nationals' clubhouse. Washington can still clinch a playoff spot before leaving Atlanta on Sunday, a product of the commanding lead the club built up over the season's first 143 games.
"You play all season to build up that lead, and we're right in the thick of it right now," Werth said. "We've got a nice little cushion, but like I said, we got all playoff teams the rest of the way. We're going to be tested, but I think we're ready for that test. I really do. I think probably the last two weeks you can really tell a difference in this team. We're a championship-caliber ballclub, a lot of guys just hitting stride. I like where we're at."