Associated Press photo
The Nationals' dugout was all smiles after Michael Morse's go-ahead home run.
"It's fine," Morse insisted later. "It was tightening up a little bit in Colorado. He told if I feel anything to let him know, so I said: 'I feel a little bit. A little tired.' That was it."
Yes, that was it in more ways than one. Because when Morse promptly crushed the first pitch he saw from Chad Durbin into the right-center field bleachers, he no longer had reason to test that weak hamstring. He could take as much time as he needed to trot around the bases, his solo homer having just given the Nationals a 5-4 lead over the Braves they would not relinquish.
As Johnson said to Morse as the latter returned to the dugout: "That's the way to keep me from running for you."
Morse's tie-breaking blast was a fitting way to cap this tense game that saw some wild swings of emotion and momentum over the final few innings. Up 4-0 most of the night thanks to the offensive exploits of Morse (4-for-4), Ian Desmond (2-run double) and Jesus Flores (solo homer) and six innings of pitching brilliance from Ross Detwiler, the Nationals nearly collapsed.
Given a chance to complete a seventh inning for only the third time in 56 career starts, Detwiler suffered through a major meltdown. In a span of minutes, he plunked one batter, mishandled a comebacker, was charged with a balk, served up an RBI single and then served up the game-tying home run to rookie Andrelton Simmons on a letter-high curveball.
What thoughts were racing through Detwiler's mind as he slumped over on the mound, hands on knees as Simmons rounded the bases to a roar from the Turner Field crowd of 32,299?
"I can't really say that on camera," the left-hander said with a smile. "They gave me four runs, and I gave them all back. Obviously I'm not going to be very happy about that."
That late implosion soiled an otherwise brilliant start for Detwiler, who carried a streak of 18 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings into that fateful bottom of the seventh. This outing might not have ended the way he wanted, but it nonetheless came at a most opportune time for a Nationals club that needed eight innings out of its bullpen the previous day in Denver and thus desperately needed a lengthy outing from its No. 5 starter.
"I'll tell you, Det gave us just what the doctor ordered," Johnson said. "It's a shame that he made really one bad pitch and it cost him the ballgame. But a strong effort. We needed it so bad, I can't even tell you."
In the end, Johnson needed to turn to his two best relievers -- Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard -- to record the game's final seven outs. Burnett wound up inducing a double play from Matt Diaz to end the eighth. Clippard managed to escape a self-made jam in the ninth, stranding the tying runner in scoring position after a leadoff double to earn his 13th save in as many tries since assuming the closer's role.
"I wasn't expecting to be my sharpest, by any means, but I was little more off than I wanted to be," said the right-hander, who hadn't appeared in a game in six days. "It's something I've experienced before in the past. I feel like when I'm not feeling my best, I can make it work. And that's what I had to do tonight."
Clutch pitching performances aside, it was Morse's clutch home run that ultimately made this victory possible.
It's been a long, slow road back from a torn lat muscle for the outfielder, who needed nearly a month of big-league at-bats to rediscover his hitting stroke. Throughout his early struggles, Morse tried to convince himself it would all come back, he just needed to stay patient.
But that's easier said than done.
"It's very tough. Very tough," he said. "Right off the bat, you're trying to go out there and do some impossible stuff. But when everything fails, you've got to go back to square one. That's just: Go up there, see the ball, hit it, try to have quality at-bats every time."
Morse has had plenty of those in the last week. He's now 12 for his last 19, a stretch during which he's raised his batting average from .217 to .294 and completely changed the makeup of the Nationals' lineup.
"Oh my goodness, my goodness," Johnson said, adding he plans to move Morse back to the cleanup spot on a daily basis.
Last year's team MVP couldn't have picked a better time to deliver his biggest hit of 2012, a knockout blow against a division rival that further solidified the Nationals' standing as the team to beat in the NL East.
"We've been playing a lot of close games, and we're comfortable in those games," Clippard said. "But this atmosphere tonight was a lot like a playoff atmosphere. I've never been in the playoffs, but I can imagine. It's huge for us, especially because we're a young team and we need these games to get us confidence when it's going to count down the stretch. And I think it does that."