By PAUL NEWBERRY
ATLANTA (AP) — Max Fried pitched one-hit ball over seven innings to outduel Stephen Strasburg and push the Atlanta Braves a step closer to their second straight NL East title, beating the Washington Nationals 4-2 in the opener of a four-game series between the division’s top two teams Thursday night.
The lone runner off Fried (16-4) was Anthony Rendon, who reached on an infield single with two outs in the first. After that, the Braves left-hander retired his last 19 hitters in the most dominating performance of his big career. He struck out nine and needed just 90 pitches to breeze past the Nationals.
After Fried was lifted for a pinch-hitter, Shane Green eased through the eighth allowing only a walk.
Mark Melancon made things interesting in the ninth, giving up a two-run homer to Victor Robles and a single to Juan Soto that brought the potential tying run to the plate. Howie Kendrick hit a game-ending groundout.
The Braves jumped on Strasburg (16-5) for two runs in the first, sparked by Ronald Acuña Jr.’s leadoff single. Acuña added to the lead in the fifth with his 37th homer, a drive into the Chop House restaurant. Right fielder Michael Taylor took only a couple of steps before stopping to watch the ball sail into the dinner crowd.
Strasberg turned in another strong outing, giving up just four hits before he was pulled after the sixth. He walked four and struck out seven.
Trailing the Braves by seven games with just over three weeks left, the wild card-leading Nationals likely needed to win at least three of four in SunTrust Park to have any chance to overtake the Braves and avoid the wild-card game.
Thanks to Fried, the task got even harder.
The Braves jumped on Strasburg right away. Acuña started the first with a single, snatched second with his 34th stolen base and came home on Ozzie Albies’ bloop double down the left-field line. Freddie Freeman extended the lead with a run-scoring single. Strasburg escaped further trouble by striking out Dansby Swanson with Freeman at third.
Strasburg dominated after that — until he fell behind Acuna in the fifth. The youngster received the green light on a 3-0 pitch and got every bit of Strasburg’s 94-mph fastball.
Brian McCann added an RBI single in the eighth.
Nationals: OF Adam Eaton struck out as a pinch hitter ending the eighth after missing the previous two games. He’s still recovering from a painful bone bruise, the result of taking a pitch off his right knee last week. Eaton tried to play through the injury, but he was finally forced to the bench after lasting only two innings in his last start on Monday. “He’s still sore,” manager Dave Martinez said before the game. “It’s a brutal area to get hit in. It’s going to take some time, but it’s getting better.”
Braves: RHP Darren O’Day is finally back in the big leagues and looking to make his first appearance in nearly 15 months. The Braves added O’Day to their expanded active roster after he completed a rehab stint in the minors. He last pitched in the majors with the Baltimore Orioles on June 26, 2018, before season-ending hamstring surgery. He was traded to the Braves and expecting to return this season, only to be sidelined for much of the year by a forearm strain. “I’m sure he’s excited as he can be to get back,” manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s been through a lot.”
Atlanta LHP Dallas Keuchel (6-5, 3.72 ERA) will go Friday in the second game of the series. He’ll be looking for his fourth straight win, having allowed just three runs over 25 innings in his last four appearances. The Nationals will counter with LHP Patrick Corbin (11-6, 3.19), who will be facing the Braves for the third time this season. He won while surrendering four runs in 11 innings over those two previous appearances.