ATLANTA -- Tim Hudson proved he still has the ability to rise to the occasion and Craig Kimbrel dazzled with an incredible escape act. But their contributions simply set the stage for B.J. Upton to steal the spotlight with a clutch single that could prove to be more than just a game-winner.
Upton was mobbed by his teammates after he delivered a one-out, opposite-field, walk-off single that preserved Hudson's determined effort and enabled the Braves to strengthen their lead in the National League East race with a 2-1, 10-inning win over the Nationals on Saturday night at Turner Field.
"Obviously, I've been struggling a little bit, but I've been working pretty hard at it," Upton said. "Things haven't been going my way, but tonight feels pretty good."
Upton snapped an 0-for-13 stretch with a second-inning single that led to a run and then heard a chorus of boos after he went hitless in his next two at-bats. But as he came to the plate during the 10th inning, he heard his name being chanted by fans, who were no longer dwelling on the .145 batting average he carried into the game.
After watching Henry Rodriguez's first-pitch slider miss the strike zone, Upton muscled the hard-throwing right-hander's 101-mph fastball to shallow right field. The broken-bat single proved to be enough to narrowly score Jordan Schafer, who pinch-ran for Evan Gattis and then stole second base ahead of a walk drawn by Dan Uggla.
"That's good for a guy who's been getting beat up the last few weeks. This is good for him, especially at home to get the crowd behind him, and hopefully that catapults him for two or three months," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, who was ejected for arguing balls and strikes in the fourth inning, said.
Upton's struggles through the season's first two months led him to be absent from the starting lineup in five of the previous seven games the Braves had played leading into Saturday.
But with his sixth two-hit performance of the season, the veteran center fielder may now have the momentum to begin meeting the expectations that were set when he signed a franchise-record five-year, $75.25 million contract in November.
"I hope so," Upton said. "I still got some work to do, and still got a long way to go. It's a long season, and hopefully this is a step in the right direction."
Upton's clutch single allowed the Braves to regain a 5 1/2-game lead over the second-place Nationals in the NL East. Atlanta has won six of the first nine games played between the division rivals.
"It was a big win for us," Hudson said. "This is game when you look back in September and think if we could have just snuck out that one-run game there in June."
Kimbrel played a key role as he did not flinch after surrendering an Adam LaRoche double that put runners on second and third with no outs in the ninth. The dominant closer struck out Ian Desmond and then saw Ryan Zimmerman retired at the plate on Roger Bernadina's grounder to third baseman Chris Johnson. The escape act was completed when Danny Espinosa hit a harmless fly ball to left field.
"[Kimbrel] is an unbelievable pitcher," Desmond said. "You don't get to the success he's had by just luck. You tip your cap."
Hudson has flirted with that "unbelievable category" while going 16-5 with a 2.45 ERA in 29 career starts against the Nationals. He has compiled a 0.84 ERA in three starts against the division rivals this year.
"That's his veteran leadership on the mound," Gonzalez said. "It doesn't matter if it's June or April. When you're facing a division rival, it's always a big game."
Hudson limited the Nationals to an unearned run and three hits while matching a season-high 7 1/3 innings. The 37-year-old hurler proved perfect in four of his seven complete innings and halted the troubles he had experienced while posting an 8.69 ERA in his previous four starts.
"I felt pretty good out there," Hudson said. "I think [pitching coach Roger McDowell] and I made some pretty good work in my bullpen sessions between starts. I think it was evident tonight the way I was throwing the ball and with the quality of my pitches."
Hudson retired each of the eight batters he faced before Gio Gonzalez extended the third inning with a two-out single through the left side of the infield. The unearned run the Nationals scored in the fourth inning came with assistance from Freddie Freeman's high throw that eluded Hudson as he was covering first base on Steve Lombardozzi's grounder.
Desmond's two-out RBI single in the fourth inning erased the early lead the Braves gained when Uggla scored the game's first run on Andrelton Simmons' one-out grounder in the bottom of the third. Uggla drew a leadoff walk from Gonzalez and then advanced to third base on the single Upton chopped through the middle of the infield.
"Everybody knows how hard [Upton] has been working to get back on track," Hudson said. "Hopefully this is just a small sign of things to come. Everybody is really happy for him. It was exciting to see."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.