The Washington Times - June 2, 2013, 12:32AM

ATLANTA — Two months of the Washington Nationals’ 2013 campaign had brought them to the top of the ninth inning in Atlanta on Saturday night. The two months behind them were inconsistent. They featured far more moments to forget than they’d likely ever expected when they broke camp riding a wave of World Series predictions. 

They featured the Nationals falling behind the Atlanta Braves in the standings, an unfamiliar position for them just a season ago, looking up and knowing each loss dug their hole deeper.

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But then Ryan Zimmerman singled and Adam LaRoche doubled off Braves closer Craig Kimbrel to open the ninth inning of a tie game. And suddenly it seemed as though all that’d happened in the first third of the season could be left there. Suddenly it seemed as though the race for the National League East title could begin in earnest.

And maybe it did. But in a 2-1 loss in 10 innings, not the way they’d hoped. 

Their offense failed to bring in either Zimmerman or LaRoche, despite having three outs with which to work. Their bullpen, worn thin from seven innings of work the night before, pushed Henry Rodriguez to the forefront in the 10th inning. Two walks later, the Braves and embattled center fielder B.J. Upton were celebrating a walk-off win.

As they dogpiled on the grass near shortstop, the Nationals were left only to trudge off the field and ponder what could’ve been. 

“We had our chances, good guys up, just couldn’t get it done,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, looking like a beaten and beleaguered man. “We had the opportunities, we had the right guys out there, we just didn’t get it done. We’ve got to get it done.” 

In a game that was pitched brilliantly by Gio Gonzalez and Tim Hudson for seven innings on either side, it was the Nationals’ offensive failings in the ninth and Rodriguez’s inability to keep runners off the bases in the 10th that they were left to stew on. 

Ian Desmond came to the plate after LaRoche’s double. He watched two sliders and a fastball go by. As Kimbrel fired a 2-1 slider at him, Desmond swung. He fouled it off. A moment later, after he looked at strike three, Desmond knew the pitch he missed — the one he fouled into the stands — was his pitch to hit. 

“Thinking back on the at-bat, that was probably my best pitch to hit,” Desmond said. “Any time you’re behind in the count against him, it’s tough. I had him where I wanted him, I just didn’t get it done… I got a good pitch to hit I just fouled it off and then he painted one at high 90s or whatever, and it was on the black.”

The difficult truth of the Nationals’ lineup, with Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos all on the disabled list, is that Roger Bernadina and Danny Espinosa — hitting .163 and .160 on the season respectively — were due up next. Bernadina ground into a fielder’s choice at home. Espinosa flew out to left.

Their threat, their beautifully-begun, tailor-made for the go-ahead run threat, was over.

“We had him in a jam,” Johnson said. “All we had to do was put the ball in play, a little sac fly. It’s frustrating.

“Desi got a slider inside half and he tried to go the other way and jammed himself. Then he took a fastball away. But Bernie took one right down the middle. They’re just not doing it. It’s tough.”

As the 46,910 who packed Turner Field on Saturday night erupted when Kimbrel wriggled out of his jam, the Nationals’ hill to climb seemed ever higher. Drew Storen had already pitched a perfect eighth. Fernando Abad had already tossed a scoreless ninth. 

Rodriguez entered lighting up the radar gun at 102 mph. But the rest of the story was familiar. Rodriguez’s electric arm received oohs and ahhs from the crowd but not a single pitch he threw to Evan Gattis was a strike. 

The Braves gave him an out on a popped-up bunt while pinch runner Jordan Schafer stole second. And he walked Dan Uggla on six pitches. Upton’s RBI-single to right field was simply the final straw.

“It’s one thing (not) holding the guy on, but not throwing strikes,” Johnson said, “you can’t walk them. He didn’t even come close on the first guy.”

If not Rodriguez, though, Johnson would’ve had to turn to Erik Davis — for his major league debut. And then to his long man to give him three or four innings. With Tyler Clippard and Craig Stammen unavailable, it was Rodriguez’s turn.  

“There’s not a lot of choices,” Johnson said. “He just tried to do too much. Didn’t trust his stuff, didn’t go right after them.” 

Gonzalez has a 1.29 ERA in four of his last five starts. Add in his loss to the Orioles and the ERA only climbs to 2.14. He has not gotten the win in any of them — and the Nationals have lost three of them. On Saturday they had five hits. He had one of them. 

“The guys battled,” he said. “They played their hearts out. It’s not like they’re going up there trying to get out. They’re going up there swinging, doing their best. 

“As a starting pitcher you have to make sure to keep your team in the game as much as possible. You’re going to give up runs, you’re going to give up hits. I’m pretty sure these guys are going to go out there and do their best. I’m not disappointed at all the way these guys played. They’re playing their hearts out… We battled. That’s the best I can say. We battled all the way to the end.”