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Nationals can’t get over hump in latest tight loss to Braves

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ATLANTA — The overcast skies that Sunday morning parked over Turner Field finally gave way to a downpour just before the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves were set to take the field. For about 30 minutes, the rain pounded on the ballpark. But when it was over, the sun began to peek through.

It was like a new day for the two teams. The first two games of this series had taken them 25 innings and almost nine hours to decide. There were plunkings, purpose pitches and ejections intertwined with heartbreak and fatigue. So perhaps, the thinking went, Sunday they could just play baseball.

But for all of the symbolic newness the early afternoon brought, and despite the positive outlook the Nationals took having won the marathon battle a night before, Washington played out an old script. The same script.

In their 2-1 loss to the Braves, which ended with a questionable check-swing call on Bryce Harper by third base umpire Marvin Hudson, the Nationals were the brutally ineffective offensive team they've been all too often this season.

"It's getting to be kind of sad: When we set the table, we don't have good at-bats, we don't drive them in," manager Davey Johnson said. "We did a good job getting on base, but not situational hitting."

They put that futility on full display early and often Sunday, going 1 for 13 with runners in scoring position and leaving 11 men on base. In the first three innings of the game, the Nationals put the first two batters on, then watched their next three make outs in infuriating fashion.

Jayson Werth struck out twice in such situations, before driving in their only run in the seventh. Gio Gonzalez failed to get a bunt down to move the runners in the second. Adam LaRoche struck out with a hit-and-run on in the seventh, and could only watch as Werth was thrown out at second to end the inning.

It was the 32nd time this season the Nationals have failed to score more than once, a startling 26 percent of their games.

"The guys we've got up at the plate are the guys we want up at the plate," Johnson said. "That's the frustrating part. ... We're just not being either aggressive early or being overly aggressive and going out of the zone."

"I think some of us, myself, are putting too much pressure on ourselves when runners are in scoring position," said center fielder Denard Span, who reached base three times but never scored. "I think we've got to remind ourselves that when runners are in scoring position, the pitcher is on the hook. He's the one that has his back to the wall, and I think sometimes we just get a little bit overaggressive and get away from our plan."

As they walked off the field Sunday, Harper jawed toward Hudson — who ejected Stephen Strasburg, Johnson and Scott Hairston the night before — for a call he felt took the bat out of his hands with the game on the line against Craig Kimbrel. Werth tugged at Harper's shoulder, pulling him into the dugout.

"I think in that situation you can't really call that," Harper said. "Especially when the home plate umpire says 'no' about three times and doesn't want to check and they obviously check and they bang me. That's one less pitch I get to see against him, possibly a 2-2 fastball.

"Kimbrel is a great closer. I think trying to see as many pitches as you can against him is huge and the deeper I get in the count it makes me stronger."

Instead, the Nationals were stuck with the reality that they are 4-12 in 16 games against their chief divisional rival. Twelve of those 16 games have been decided by two runs or fewer — but the Nationals have lost eight of those close games, too.

The games themselves show there is not that large a gap between the two teams, but the results show otherwise.

"It just seems like they find a way to win," Span said. "Even [Saturday] night, we were able to win, but they've broken our hearts time and time again. We've had the leads. I think they've probably come back at least four of those [12] wins, and that can crush a team.

"I haven't played against a team like that in awhile, where they just have our number and you've just got to tip your cap off to them."

With their words, the Nationals offered nothing but praise and respect for the Braves, who lead the National League East by 15 1/2 games with six weeks remaining in the season. The Braves have beaten them. Thoroughly and resoundingly. But the way it's happened seems familiar to them.

"It's not like they're destroying us and doing big damage," said Gonzalez, who allowed the first two batters of the game to score but nothing more to go seven strong, badly needed innings. "They're just playing small ball and finding their hits. That was us last year. Now we see it from the other side."

Added Johnson: "They're pitching very well, their bullpen has been great, and their bench is doing an outstanding job. Their run differential is over 100. That's the formula. That's what we did last year, which we're not doing this year. I think they have a heck of a ballclub, and they're playing at a very high level. Even the guys coming off the bench are playing very well. That was our strength last year, too. Unfortunately we haven't been able to carry it over this year."

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