WASHINGTON | Take away the walks, and maybe the Atlanta Braves throw a shutout. Or get just one hit when there are a couple of men on base, and the Braves almost certainly win.
Instead, Atlanta is heading home for the final week of the season spinning its wheels, still in the wild card picture but not playing anything close to playoff baseball in Bobby Cox's managerial homestretch.
The Braves lost 4-2 to the last-place Washington Nationals on Sunday in a game in which every run allowed by the Atlanta pitching staff reached base with a free pass — and in which the Cox's team went 0 for 5 with two bags occupied.
"We've got to turn the intensity up," catcher Brian McCann said. "And we've got to make every at-bat count. We've got six games to make this thing happen, and we'll see what we're made of."
The Braves have lost five of six, including two of three to the Nationals. They lost the season series 10-8 to Washington, a team that is 22 games below .500. They began the day tied with San Francisco for the wild-card lead, but fell behind when the Giants beat Colorado 4-2 to move into a tie with San Diego for the NL West lead.
The Padres played Cincinnati later Sunday, and their game was on Cox's television in the visiting manager's office as he spoke about his team's prospects heading into a six-game homestand against Florida and Philadelphia.
"We have a chance," Cox said. "Today was a big game for us. Just got to put together a little streak."
The Braves put two runners on base with fewer than two outs three times in the first six innings and failed to score each time. Rick Ankiel was the only Atlanta batter to produce runs, leading off the fifth with a home run and a doubling home Melky Cabrera with no out to make it 2-all in the seventh. Ankiel never budged from second after that hit, watching his teammates strike out twice and then ground out to end the inning.
Brandon Beachy, making his second career start, struck out nine over five innings to keep the Braves in the game. But the right-hander, who is playing a major role in a critical part of the season because Jair Jurrjens has a sore right knee, also walked three batters — and two of them scored.
"I didn't have control those first couple of innings, and it hurt me," Beachy said. "That's something I haven't dealt with a lot. I've dealt with not having my stuff for the first innings or so, but not with walking guys. Normally I'm at least able to put the ball somewhere over the plate."
Kyle Farnsworth (0-2) was even more off course, walking two of the four batters he faced. He entered in the seventh and got a pair of quick outs before walking Willie Harris and Danny Espinosa. Farnsworth was relieved by Jonny Venters, who promptly threw four straight balls to Nyjer Morgan to load the bases. Ian Desmond then singled to center, scoring the two runs that put the Nationals ahead for good.
"Walking Nyjer on four pitches was terrible," Venters said. "I fell behind to Desmond and put the pitch up over the plate. Didn't throw a lot of strikes. Didn't do my job."
Nationals reliever Sean Burnett (1-7) finally got a win by retiring six straight batters. He rescued starter Livan Hernandez from the seventh-inning jam and also worked the eighth before giving way to Drew Storen, who worked a 1-2-3 ninth for his fifth save. It was Burnett's first victory since Aug. 2 of last year, even though his ERA this year is a more-than-solid 2.26.
"For him to have such a great year and not have a win, we were talking about that in the bullpen," Storen said. "We didn't want to jinx him, but we were like, 'He needs to get one.' So I was glad to help out with that."
The Braves had their chances against Hernandez early on. They had runners on first and third in the first when McCann hit a hard liner right at first baseman Adam Dunn, who stepped on the bag for the double play. There were men on second and third in the fourth, but Alex Gonzalez popped up and Cabrera lined out to left. Gonzalez also hit into a double play to end the sixth, wiping out an inning in which the first two batters reached base.
"They've got everything to play for," Burnett said. "They've got their season on the line and you're going to get their best shot and we got two out of three from them, so that's a pretty good confidence-builder."
Notes: Beachy got his first major league hit in the third inning, a high bouncer that just cleared the pitcher's glove and went right between the charging second baseman and shortstop. ... The Nationals honored Cox in a pregame ceremony, presenting him with a flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol followed by a performance by the U.S. Navy Band. "I never expected anything like that and probably don't deserve it. I'm honored that they did it," said Cox, who is retiring at the end of the season. ... Hernandez made his 32nd regular season start against a Cox-managed team, tying him for first with Curt Schilling, Andy Benes and Steve Trachsel. Hernandez has started against a Cox team 34 times, including postseason, behind only Schilling's 35. ... Jim Riggleman won his 100th game since taking over as Nationals manager in the middle of the 2009 season. He's lost 131.