ATLANTA — In the aftermath, the Washington Nationals did not hang their heads or speak in hushed tones. They talked of the work they’d done to get to this point, and of the fact that their lead in the National League East is still one of the largest in baseball with just more than two weeks to play.
But they couldn’t escape the facts. They couldn’t undo what had transpired over the course of three grinding, tense games at Turner Field this weekend. They couldn’t erase a three-game sweep at the hands of the Atlanta Braves that culminated with a 5-1 loss in front of a national television audience Sunday night.
“It’s over with,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche. “It’s not the way we drew it up, but the good thing is all the work we’ve done up until now, we’re still [5 ½ games] up. It would’ve been nice to just take one and not fall so far behind, but we’re still in the driver’s seat. Take a day tomorrow, come out at home.”
When the Nats arrived here late Wednesday night, they had a season-high 8 ½-game lead. They found themselves in a good position with the possibility of clinching a playoff spot before they departed existed.
Players gathered around on the leather couches in the center of the visitors’ clubhouse early Sunday evening as a commercial for the Braves flashed on the television. It touted one game for the playoffs, tickets to a wild card game Oct. 5 at Turner Field. Eyes of several players widened at the sight, shocked a team would run something so concessional.
It was a commercial in contrast to the Braves’ performance this weekend — a performance indicative of a team that believes it’s still very much alive in the race for the division crown.
“After what happened last year with us, we know anything can happen,” said Braves second baseman Dan Uggla, his two-run, bases-loaded single in the seventh giving the Braves a 5-1 lead. “This put us back in the hunt a little bit. We are still going to need some magic, but there’s still time so we’ll see what happens.”
That was the team that wore Gio Gonzalez down in the first three innings, forcing the Nationals’ jovial left-hander to throw 83 pitches. Nine of the first 14 batters he faced forced him to throw five pitches more. It was an untenable load but even then the Braves’ lead was only two runs.
Catcher Kurt Suzuki pleaded with Gonzalez to attack the strike zone more aggressively. Gonzalez threatened Nationals manager Davey Johnson not to remove him. “I’ll kill you if you take me out,”Johnson said Gonzalez joked. And in the fourth and fifth, he looked much more like the 19-game winner with a sub-3.00 ERA he is.
“After the third inning, [Mark] DeRosa came up to me [and said,] ‘Hey, a little more confidence on that mound. We need that mound presence.’ Once he said that, it kind of switched, just turned it on. The only thing that [stinks] was it started a little too late for me. Kind of smiling, I told Mark, ‘Where were you in the first inning?’”
But that feeling would not last. Gonzalez, starting the sixth inning at 103 pitches, walked Chipper Jones and Freddie Freeman followed with a double off the wall in right center field. Gonzalez departed, tipping his cap to Jones on his way off the field, unsure if he’d play in the same game as the retiring third baseman again. Craig Stammen would escape the jam but in the seventh the Nationals would not be so lucky.
In contrast to what has been their strength for much of the season, the Nationals gave the Braves more opportunities than they earned. They walked 13 batters over the course of three days, hit two more and committed three errors — 18 free baserunners. They also struck out 35 times and scored once in the final 16 innings.
Michael Bourn walked with one out in the seventh, but the inning worsened with a fielding error by Ryan Zimmerman, a grounder that ate the third baseman up and then caromed out of his sightline and into foul territory. Bourn wound up on third and scored on a sharp ground ball to first that LaRoche attempted to step on the bag and turn a double play at home but his throw was wide.
“It was just a tough error in the seventh inning,” Johnson said. “It kind of opened the floodgates. I thought we still had a chance if we stopped the guy at third.”
That’s where they left it. With a 5 ½-game lead and 16 to play. With a day off on Monday and wild card contenders on their schedule for every game the rest of the way. Johnson made his way around the clubhouse talking to a few players individually, making them laugh.
“That’s a good team over there,” Zimmerman said. “Tonight they got some hits and lengthened the lead, but yesterday we had a really good chance to win the game and it was a one-run game two days before.
“But we’ve put ourselves in a great position. We’ve played well all year. There’s two weeks left of playing baseball. Everything’s right in front of us.”