The turnaround was swift. No fewer than 13 ½ hours had passed from the time the Washington Nationals left the field Friday night, their most crushing loss of the season sealed, when they were back on that same diamond trying to open a doubleheader on a good note Saturday afternoon.
They needed a strong start from Edwin Jackson. They hoped Ben Sheets would look more like a guy who the major leagues had forgotten for the past two years and less like the one who opened his career reset with six scoreless innings over the New York Mets last Sunday.
They got the first. Jackson twirled seven superb innings, his only blemish a solo home run surrendered to Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann. But in a 4-0 loss to the Braves at Nationals Park — a pivotal loss that brought their closest National League East competition to within 1 ½ games of their perch atop the division — the second never happened.
"It's just a game that we lost," Jackson said, his one-run, five-hit, nine-strikeout performance one of the lone bright spots on a dreary afternoon. "Had we gone out and won, nobody would have made any big deal about us being tired or anything else. You're definitely not going to hear any excuses from anyone in the clubhouse. It's just a game that we lost. We battled and we fought and we never did give in. We just came up short."
Sheets was magnificent over six scoreless innings to put the Braves well on their way to shutting out the Nationals for what was just their second shutout of the season. The Nationals' offense struggled to generate anything off the 34-year-old survivor of multiple reconstructive elbow surgeries. And their bullpen, again, couldn't hold the dam.
"His velocity isn't what it used to be," said first baseman Adam LaRoche, who was 0-for-3. "But he's made up for it with location, mixing pitches up, keeps the ball down. We just couldn't get to him."
But when Jackson's day was over, Nationals manager Davey Johnson turned to volatile right-hander Henry Rodriguez. Four of the next five batters were left-handed, but Johnson used all of his lefties in the extra-inning game Friday night. And while he's been attempting to pick low-pressure spots for the talented but unreliable Rodriguez, he trusted him to keep the 1-0 game close.
Rodriguez allowed a single to Michael Bourn. Bourn stole second. Rodriguez walked Martin Prado. Prado and Bourn then executed a double steal to put them on second and third, respectively. Rodriguez then threw a wild pitch that scored Bourn. In a 2-1 count to Jason Heyward, Johnson had seen enough.
"When he's good, he's really good," Johnson said. "And when he's not so good, he's not so good. He was awful good for those nine saves and then he kind of, I don't know if he gets excited and tries to do too much or whatever. I know it's as frustrating for him as it is for the rest of us."
Johnson said he would use Rodriguez again in Saturday's nightcap if the need arose.
But even if he does, the Nationals will be working with a dwindling NL East lead. Players said they did not see a carryover from Friday night's gut-wrenching defeat into Saturday's flat loss, they just couldn't escape the results.
"It's a frustrating game but we're still in first place," LaRoche said. "Things could be worse.
"[We just have to] get back out there as quick as possible. The longer we sit around thinking about it, it's not going to change anything so get back after 'em and try to win this one."
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