The opener of the Washington Nationals' biggest series yet this year — perhaps their biggest series in seven years — reached a crucial point Friday night in the seventh inning. Their four-run lead over the Atlanta Braves had withered to one. The fifth spot in their starting rotation had become an open competition. Two runners stood in scoring position. There were two outs.

Ryan Zimmerman stood in the on-deck circle, and he recognized immediately what was happening. Tim Hudson, long his nemesis, threw four obvious balls to Bryce Harper, openly bypassing the Nationals' 19-year-old prodigy to face the face of their franchise with the bases loaded. Zimmerman shrugged.

"Bryce is better than me right now," Zimmerman said. "I'd walk him, too."

Zimmerman delivered the key hit, a bases-clearing double that let the Nationals cruise to a 7-4 victory at Turner Field that stretched their division lead over second-place Atlanta to two games. The Nationals' four-run first inning gave them enough cushion to survive Ross Detwiler's laborious 41 / 3 innings before Chien-Ming Wang restored order and added drama to the Nationals' pitching picture.

In the end, Zimmerman's second double off Hudson — a right-hander whom he previously had one extra-base hit against in 48 career plate appearances — provided the difference to one of the Nationals' biggest wins in years.