Nats knocked out of first

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ATLANTA — It took Livan Hernandez 105 pitches to carry the Washington Nationals to the verge of perhaps their biggest win of the year.

It then took Chad Cordero and Luis Ayala a combined 10 pitches to throw it all away.

There wasn’t much else to say about last night’s 3-2, 10-inning loss to the Atlanta Braves, a loss that dropped the Nationals out of first place in the National League East for the first time since June4.

“All we had to do was get three outs,” manager Frank Robinson lamented. “We couldn’t do it tonight.”

Just when Washington looked on the verge of righting its wayward season, leave it to the Braves to deliver a harsh dose of reality, to state once again that this division is theirs until someone else knocks them off their lofty perch.

Not that the Nationals (55-45) didn’t put themselves in position to at least deliver a solid blow to their chief rivals last night. Behind Hernandez’s eight innings of five-hit ball, Washington took a 2-1 lead into the ninth inning and left the Turner Field crowd of 43,308 sweating things out.

As he has done so many times this season, Robinson put the game in the hands of Cordero, his unflappable 23-year-old closer who was 34-for-37 in save opportunities.

Make that 34-for-38. Cordero was greeted rudely, allowing the Braves (56-44) to tie the game in a span of three pitches. Andruw Jones doubled. Chipper Jones singled him to third. Adam LaRoche lofted a sacrifice fly to right.

Before Cordero knew what hit him, he had blown the lead. His aggressive, go-right-after-the-hitter approach had come back to haunt him this time.

“That’s the way it goes,” Robinson said. “That’s the way he comes after you.”

The rest was academic, though no less painful to watch. The Nationals went down in order in the top of the 10th, then handed Atlanta the game in the bottom of the inning.

Left-hander Mike Stanton (0-1) allowed a leadoff single to Brian McCann. Four batters later, Robinson summoned righty Ayala to face Marcus Giles with two on and two out, then cringed as Ayala plunked Giles on a 1-1 pitch and walked Andruw Jones on four straight to force in the winning run.

“I tried to throw a sinker to the middle [of the plate], but the pitch stayed up,” said Ayala of his game-ending, high-and-outside ball to Jones.

Ayala and catcher Brian Schneider argued with plate umpire Bruce Dreckman, believing the pitch was a strike, but Robinson said there was no reason for Ayala to leave things to chance in that situation.

“Throw a ball over the middle of the plate,” the manager said. “You think he’s swinging 3-0? No. And if he is, let him swing at that. It looked to me like he was trying to make the perfect pitch, outside corner.”

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