WASHINGTON -- The Nationals are doing everything they can to stay in the Wild Card race. In the second game of a day-night doubleheader, right-hander Tanner Roark pitched a gem as Washington defeated the Braves, 4-0, at Nationals Park on Tuesday night, completing a twin-bill sweep.
Earlier in the day, an error by Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons in the bottom of the ninth inning helped the Nationals edge Atlanta, 6-5. The Nationals are now 4 1/2 games behind the Reds for the second and final National League Wild Card spot. Cincinnati pounded the Astros, 10-0, in Houston.
"It's just a big day for us, regardless of who we are playing," Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "It's nice to get it against Atlanta. They have been hard on us all year. It seems like every game we play is close. They get the better part of us late in the game."
Dating back to Aug. 9, the Nationals have the best record in baseball, going 27-10.
"They're playing good baseball," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "Up and down the lineup, they're swinging the bats and getting good pitching. We just need to get going ourselves."
Roark pitched arguably the best game of his young career. He tossed seven shutout innings and allowed two hits -- both coming in the second -- and struck out six batters. Roark retired the last 14 hitters he faced while throwing a career-high 101 pitches.
"How about Tanner Roark?" manager Davey Johnson said. "When I hooked him after the seventh inning, I said, 'Nice game.' He said, 'Are you sure?' I said, 'Yeah, you are through.' He was totally in command pretty much the whole way. It looked like he was sensing the finishing line because he was starting to crank it up there [with his fastball]. What a great effort."
Roark was never a star in the Minor Leagues. In fact, he was coming off one of his worst seasons in the Minors, losing a season-high 17 games with a 4.39 ERA in 2012. This year, he changed his mental approach to the game. He stopped worrying about things he couldn't control.
After a good season with Triple-A Syracuse this year, Roark was promoted to the big leagues on Aug. 7.
"Last year was when I had my mental turnaround," Roark said. "That was the biggest thing for me -- not worrying about anything else behind me, anything like bloop hits or anything like that. I was just attacking, going after guys, keeping the ball down low and keeping hitters off-balance."
Roark is now 7-0 with a 1.08 ERA, and he acknowledged that he's surprised by his success thus far in the big leagues.
"I'm just trying to do the same thing like I was doing all year, not trying to change anything, keeping the same mentality -- bulldog mentality -- and not giving in to anybody at any time," Roark said.
Roark's counterpart, right-hander Freddy Garcia, was nearly as good, pitching seven innings and allowing one run on seven hits. That run came in the second inning, when Bryce Harper scored on a single by Steve Lombardozzi.
It turned out to be a big day for Nationals outfielder Denard Span, who extended his hitting streak to 28 games on Tuesday night, bypassing Colorado's Michael Cuddyer for the longest hitting streak in the Major Leagues this season. Span is two games away from the team record set by Ryan Zimmerman.
In his third at-bat against Garcia, Span singled to left field with one out. After Zimmerman struck out, Span stole second base, but he was left stranded when Jayson Werth flied to center field.
Span is aware that he is close to Zimmerman's record, but winning is more important.
"I really try not to think about it, to be honest," Span said. "We are playing good baseball and I think that has been more important to me than the hitting streak -- us winning games. I happy that I've been able to contribute to us winning some games."
The Nationals put the game out of reach with a three-run eighth inning against reliever Jordan Walden. Zimmerman belted a solo homer, Ian Desmond ripped an RBI double and LaRoche added an RBI single.
But the Braves made it interesting in the ninth inning against closer Rafael Soriano. Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman singled to put runners on first and second. But Evan Gattis lined into a double play. After Chris Johnson reached base on a throwing error by Desmond, Gerald Laird grounded out to Soriano to end the game.
"When we play a team like them, they make the last three outs tough," Zimmerman said. "[The Braves] have a good team. ... Anytime you can add on late in the game, especially against their bullpen -- their bullpen has been unbelievable all year -- good finish to a really good day."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.