ATLANTA — The storm clouds that gathered just beyond the center field scoreboard at Turner Field Sunday afternoon were black and menacing. They seemed to indicate one thing: impending doom. As lightning and thunder cracked, the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves played on.
It was a fitting scene for the Nationals, who fell 6-3 in the finale of this three-game series, as they dropped below .500 for the first time since April. The Braves, who’ve now beaten the Nationals in seven of the teams’ 10 meetings, are 6 ½ games ahead of them in the National League East standings.
“We deserve to be where we’re at right now,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche. “We’ve played like crap.”
The Nationals began this series with an uplifting victory, in spite of Stephen Strasburg’s exit with a lat strain. And they appeared on the verge of another when they put the first two batters on in the ninth against Braves’ closer Craig Kimbrel on Saturday.
But needing to rebound from a gut-wrenching walk-off loss, the Nationals sent rookie Nate Karns to the mound for the second start of his career on Sunday afternoon. As they have so many days this season due to injury, they filled out their lineup with a natural second baseman in left and a natural first baseman in right.
None of the bottom four hitters in their lineup carried a batting average higher than .160 into the game. In the middle of the game, manager Davey Johnson found himself glancing up at the scoreboard and simply shaking his head at all of the stats that started with .1 staring back at him.
After a two-run second inning that featured offense from Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche and Tyler Moore — getting back the early runs Karns allowed on a home run that followed a throwing error by Ryan Zimmerman — the Nationals had precisely one hit: a solo home run by Desmond. The top three hitters in their lineup were 1-for-12. The bottom three were 0-for-8.
“Just about half the ballclub is not doing the things they’re capable of offensively,” Johnson said. “I look up there and a bunch of guys are hitting .150. There’s too good of quality players here to be doing that… We have talent. We’re just not getting it done.”
Karns said he felt more relaxed this time around and was honest about the fact that he understands he’s facing better hitters here than he ever has. Johnson, too, said he came away impressed with his progress.
Karns lasted 4 ⅔ innings. He allowed three earned runs on seven hits, walked one and struck out six. But when he left, the Nationals trailed by just a run. Zach Duke could not retire either of the first two batters he faced — allowing an RBI-single to Brian McCann and giving the Braves a lead the Nationals would never recover from.
Duke’s work in the sixth, which began with two walks, a bunt, an intentional walk and a two-run double that was inches from being a grand slam by Freddie Freeman, took the Nationals further off the rails.
“I feel like I’m continuing to grow up here,” Karns said. “I’m able to become more of what my game is up here. It’s just nice that I’m making progress. I’m still not satisfied. I want to get this ‘W’ for these guys every time I’m out there.”
Perhaps with another offense behind him, Karns’ performance could’ve been one in which he was made a winner.
The Nationals, who happily expect to get Jayson Werth back on Tuesday, gave him nine runs of support in his debut. But their formula far more often is to scratch out a few runs early, and hibernate late. Fifty-seven games into the season, their offense ranks among the worst five teams in the major leagues in average, on-base percentage and slugging.
In the silence that descended on the visitors’ clubhouse at Turner Field they had no answers, only the steadfast belief that, eventually, they will get healthy. That water will seek its level and their play will once again begin to reflect their talent.
“It’ll turn,” LaRoche said. “If you’ve got a good team, at the end of the year, it’ll show. If you don’t it’s going to show. It’s not a situation where you go work harder, play harder, swing harder, throw harder. It doesn’t work. Baseball doesn’t work like that. It never has. We’re not going to try it now.”
Notes: Right-hander Erik Davis made his major league debut in the sixth inning, summoned with one out and runners on second and third. He got five straight outs, one of the most positive things to come out of the day for the Nationals. Fernando Abad, too, pitched a perfect eighth… There was no update on the status of right-hander Stephen Strasburg, who suffered a Grade 1 lat strain on Friday night. Strasburg is expected to try throwing on Wednesday at the earliest. The Nationals have not placed him on the disabled list and can push his next start until June 8 because of Monday’s off-day.