- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 15, 2012

ATLANTA — Ryan Mattheus kept his eyes low, his words muffled. He berated himself. He called his inability to throw strikes in the decisive eighth inning Saturday night “inexcusable” and searched for the reason why his command deserted him.

Across the clubhouse, Davey Johnson sat inside the manager’s office and stewed. His arm-waving tirade at first base umpire Marvin Hudson seemed so long ago. The blown call in the sixth inning, a turning point in the Washington Nationals’ 5-4 loss to the Atlanta Braves, earned Johnson his first ejection of the season.

As the Nationals shuffled their way out of Turner Field, the strains of an O.A.R. post-game concert seeping into their otherwise silent clubhouse, they had plenty to ponder and regret.

“I didn’t even give us a chance to win that game,” said Mattheus, who faced five batters in the eighth inning, the game tied at four. He retired one, gave up one hit, walked two and grazed the jersey of shortstop Andrelton Simmons with the bases loaded to force in the winning run. To his final three batters, Mattheus threw 16 pitches and 11 of them were balls.

“I’ve got to throw strikes. If I get beat throwing strikes, it’s a little easier to swallow. I can’t remember that happening any time in the past. It’s inexcusable.”

His manager excused it, though he watched from inside his office inside the visitor’s clubhouse at Turner Field. Johnson called Mattheus “almost letter-perfect” to this point in the year and had no explanation, either, for the right-hander’s wildness. He brushed it off.

Instead he discussed Hudson’s call at first base in the sixth inning with the Nationals up 4-2. A safe call, claiming that first baseman Adam LaRoche’s foot came off the bag when he stretched for Edwin Jackson’s throw on a one-hopper back to the mound. LaRoche’s foot appeared to be on the bag throughout, and the throw beat Martin Prado easily. LaRoche argued, as did Johnson, pleading for Hudson to ask for help. He wouldn’t.

One batter later, Jason Heyward hit a game-tying two run homer.

“It’s a critical point in the ballgame,” Johnson said, his primary frustration with Hudson’s refusal to get help on the call. Johnson is not a proponent of expanded instant replay.

“I knew, even with these old eyes, I was right,” Johnson added. “I didn’t need a replay. And I’m thinking: Here’s a young man, right on top of it. Obviously he had to be out of position… It’s all about momentum in ballgames. Here my pitcher is really throwing a great ballgame and we’ve got a lead and the middle of the lineup is coming up. We don’t need to give them a gift.”

LaRoche, too, was certain he was on the bag. And from Jackson’s immediate reaction he felt the call was incorrect as well. His day lasted one more batter after Heyward’s home run dipped over the right center field wall.

“I was just trying to come back and be aggressive,” Jackson said, Heyward’s home run one of two he gave up on the day, keeping the door open just enough for the Braves to plow through it. “Just try to come at him, and he hit the ball out the park. A pitch down the middle.

“At the end of the day, if we don’t win the game, what happens really doesn’t matter,” Jackson said, his line 5 1/3 innings, four runs (three earned) with a walk and six strikeouts. “The objective is to go out and win. I wasn’t able to do that today. Definitely a tough one to swallow. I have to do a better job of securing the lead when we get it like that.”

A team that hadn’t beaten them in a series all season did it at one of the season’s most critical points. An opportunity to make the race for the National League East crown all but a formality was gone, replaced with a need to avoid being swept and watching their once 8 1/2-game lead dwindle to 5 1/2 with just more than two weeks to play.

A chance to put the Braves in a chokehold has, instead, gave them renewed life.

“Winning this series makes (winning the division) more realistic,” Heyward said. “Our mindset is to go after the division until you can’t.”

But the Nationals have a chance to squash those plans a bit more Sunday night. They have a chance to leave Atlanta with little harm done to their lead in the division and to put two taught, tense games behind them. They have Gio Gonzalez going for this 20th win on a night when they need it.

“You don’t want to get swept anywhere, especially against the team behind you,” LaRoche said, his 30th home run of the season giving the Nationals a two-run lead in the first and a calamitous second inning by the Braves giving them two more in the second before their offense went silent. They gave all those runs back. They could only move forward.

“It’s a big game,” LaRoche continued. “I think they’re all pretty big from here on out, but we’ve got a chance to really gain some ground against these guys. Had two close ones, lost ‘em. Come out tomorrow, hopefully take one.”



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