ATLANTA — Tom Gorzelanny was just doing what he thought he should. He'd reached base in the second inning on a fielder's choice and found himself gunning for home on a triple to right-center field by Roger Bernadina.
Braves catcher Brian McCann was waiting, though, and even when second baseman Dan Uggla's relay throw eluded the Atlanta backstop, it didn't stop a collision between him the Nationals starter. When it was over, the game was tied - the first of three times that would happen Sunday afternoon - but Washington had lost its starting pitcher with a sprained right ankle.
As Nationals manager Davey Johnson then attempted to stretch his relievers to make up for that early exit, Gorzelanny's injury loomed large. Particularly when Sean Burnett entered with a three-run lead in the fifth and served up a three-run homer to McCann.
The Nationals lost the game 9-8, the series and more ground in the National League wild card standings four innings later on an RBI single by Freddie Freeman. But with four relievers stretched to their limit, the Nationals lost leads of four, three and one runs. Even an offensive outburst against the usually dominant Jair Jurrjens, couldn't save them.
"This is definitely a game we've got to win," said reliever Tyler Clippard, who surrendered a game-tying home run in the bottom of the eighth to Nate McLouth, the only mistake he made in a two-inning outing.
"We were in a position to win the game," said reliever Ryan Mattheus. "When you walk away with a loss when you were in a position to win the game, it's tough to swallow."
Mattheus (2-1) was the victim of the Braves' final blow, the pitcher of record in the Nationals' 48th loss, but the game turned when Burnett surrendered McCann's homer, which gave the Braves a 7-6 lead.
It was the fourth homer allowed in Burnett's past five outings.
"Me blowing a three-run lead is a big blow to the team, for sure," Burnett said. "It happens. [Atlanta's] a great ballclub. Winning teams find a way to come back and at least tie it up and have a chance. They did it off of me. Then they were fortunate enough to get a ball up in the zone and they did it off Clippard, too. Just one of those days you've got to regroup. We'll go back at it tomorrow, but I need to fix some things."
In spite of that, Burnett was allowed to hit, and he laced a single to right. He then was caught between first and second on a bloop to left.
The Nationals still were in position to win when he took the mound again for the seventh.
Danny Espinosa, who finished a double shy of the cycle, put Washington back on top with a two-run homer to left field. It was his 17th - six more than any other second baseman in Washington history dating to the Senators.
McLouth's homer two innings later would again make the lead moot.
"I used about everybody [in the bullpen]," Johnson said, noting he was saving closer Drew Storen for when the team had a lead. "I'm frustrated it wasn't meant to be....We wanted that one bad."
Notes: The Nationals optioned utility man Brian Bixler to Triple-A Syracuse after Sunday's game in preparation for activating Jerry Hairston Jr. from the disabled list Monday in Houston.... Gorzelanny was unsure if he'd be able to make his next start, Saturday in Los Angeles, with his sprained ankle. He is listed as day to day.
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