It is on nights like Wednesday when the difficulty of what the Washington Nationals have been trying to accomplish these last few weeks becomes crystal clear. When the magnitude of trying to make up ground in September, as the days dwindle and the calendar works against them almost as feverishly as their opponents, is proven out in full.
For the last six weeks or so, the Nationals have rolled along. They’ve played as one of the best teams in baseball, the type of team everyone expected them to be, and all of the winning made their improbable charge to the end seem possible. They played so well their hopes seemed like less of a glimmer and more of a prophecy.
All those stories about the team that gets hot, and gets in, and then pushes all the way to the title? They made the question seem reasonable: why couldn’t it be them?
But it is nights like Wednesday, when a 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves in a series in which the Nationals took two of three, can bring all of that crashing back down to earth. The Nationals have 10 games remaining in their season and they trail the Cincinnati Reds by 5.5 games in the wild card race.
“Any other time of year that’s a pretty good series, especially against these guys,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche. “But right now we can’t afford to lose any.”
The Nationals held a 2-0 advantage on the Braves for mere minutes on Wednesday. It was a lead gotten in a firework-filled, expletive-laden bottom of the fifth inning when Braves pitcher Alex Wood took issue with CB Bucknor’s strike zone on a bases-loaded walk to Jayson Werth. Wood steamed, needing to be restrained by teammates, as Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez was ejected and Anthony Rendon came home to score the game’s first run.
When Bryce Harper sent a sacrifice fly to center field and Wood was pulled, he walked toward the plate on his way off hurling expletives at Bucknor and was ejected — for good measure, at least.
“Things got kind of heated right there for both sides — the umpire and the Braves,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, who was at the plate when Wood was tossed. “That happens in this game. Sometimes you get ejected.”
Maybe the outburst served to rally the Braves. Maybe Ross Ohlendorf, who cruised through five innings facing the minimum 15 batters and allowing only one hit, just lost his touch in the top of the sixth.
But Dan Uggla smashed his first pitch of the inning, an 89-mph fastball, into the left field seats and Justin Upton crushed a two-run shot on a hanging slider three batters later.
The National never recovered.
Denard Span’s single to right, extending his hitting streak to 29 games, was their only hit after the fifth inning.
“(Ohlendorf) just hung a breaking ball, hung it big time,” said manager Davey Johnson, who had pitching coach Steve McCatty visit the mound before Upton’s at-bat as the bullpen finally stirred. “Inside part of the plate and up. That was it. He was cruising. Low pitch-count. But that can happen, you make a bad pitch and boom.”
As they made their way quietly back into their clubhouse late Wednesday night, the televisions that greeted them were tuned to the Reds’ tie game against the Houston Astros.
Their own loss had already done untold damage to their hopes, so they watched in silence and crossed their fingers that it would be as minimal as possible. The powerless feeling that comes with trying to play from behind accompanied them.
There was no solace, this time, in taking a series from their division rivals. From improving, if only slightly, to 6-13 against them in the season series. There was only the idea of taking a deep breath and turning their eyes toward tomorrow, to four games against the Miami Marlins.
“It’s just not enough,” Johnson said of winning two of three against the Braves. “We just can’t afford to lose. It’s that simple.”