In home opener, Nats are reminded why Braves are the defending division champs

The placement of Bryce Harper in the Washington lineup had drawn much discussion in the season’s first week. His spot, all debate pushed aside, brought him to the plate Friday afternoon with two outs in the eighth inning of the Nationals’ first home game. A fire-breathing reliever occupied the mound, two runners stood on base and a sellout crowd roared. There could be worse times to have an overqualified sixth hitter.

In the Nationals’ 2-1 loss, the most pivotal moment of the afternoon offered them another reminder of the difficulty in toppling the Atlanta Braves. Setup reliever David Carpenter struck out Harper with a hellacious 3-2 fastball, escaping a two-on, none-out jam with his third consecutive strikeout. Craig Kimbrel loomed ahead, and so the Nationals could only regret the missed opportunities that came before.

“We had our chances there,” Manager Matt Williams said. “On any given day, we’ll take those chances.”

The aggression Williams espouses helped to keep the game tight — the Nationals ran into three outs in the first five innings, one of them at the plate on a play that was not close. Jordan Zimmermann pitched one day after the flu sidelined him and struck out nine in five one-run innings. Tyler Clippard allowed the go-ahead run in the eighth, victimized by his leadoff walk to Jason Heyward and a sacrifice fly from Chris Johnson.

The Nationals drove rookie right-hander David Hale from the mound after five scoreless innings, which only invited the Braves’ menacing bullpen. They scored one run in the sixth off Gus Schlosser. Once they fell behind again, Carpenter and Kimbrel struck out five of the eight batters they faced and threw 15 pitches at least 96 mph. Winter offered reprieve, but here, again, come those Atlanta relievers.

“You’re not a good team like they are without having four or five guys that come out of [the bullpen] that aren’t fun to hit against,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “We have confidence in ourselves. We think we can score runs against them. They’re one of the toughest ones to do it against. But we have no problem facing them.”

The Nationals, at least outwardly, ascribed no special meaning to their showdown with Atlanta. But the Braves knocked them off their perch last season and won 13 of 19 meetings. In their first of 19 meetings this year, they handed the Nationals their first loss.

“They’re the king of the mountain, and we’re trying to knock them off the mountain,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said beforehand. “They’re a franchise that we respect greatly and don’t fear at all.”

Friday’s game hinged on a bizarre play, when a replay review nullified Ian Desmond’s inside-the-park home run — a hit that burrowed under the fence rather than flying over it.

Desmond led off the fifth with the Nationals down 1-0 and ripped the ball into the left field corner. Justin Upton trotted to the wall to retrieve it. Before attempting to pick up the ball, he raised his arms, a signal to the umpires the ball had lodged between the fence and the warning track.

“I was just going,” Desmond said. “With replay the way it is now, I’m not going to leave anything out.”

Immediately after Desmond crossed home, Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez asked umpires for a review. The ball had originally been ruled live. The review would determine whether Rule 7.05(f) — which states a lodged ball gives the batter a ground-rule double — came into play. After five minutes, the umpires ruled the ball had been stuck and judged the play a double.

“One of the reasons we have replay is to get the calls right,” Williams said. “I have a question with that one, though, because of what happened after the fact — the fact that when he had to, he reached down and threw it in.”

The Nationals still had a leadoff double, a man in scoring position with no outs. “There were mistakes that were made, especially by me, that probably were more of a story in the game,” Desmond said.

Desmond had the green light to steal third, and when he noticed something in Hale’s delivery, he bolted. “I thought I had something,” Desmond said. “About halfway, I didn’t have what I thought I had. Panic mode at that point.”

A rundown resulted in an out, the third mishap on the bases of the afternoon. The Nationals produced six base runners in the first five innings. Three made outs on the bases. In the second, Harper also got caught in a rundown, trying to steal second base.

“It had nothing to do with us knowing the reports or anything like that,” Gonzalez said. “We got the outs. They gave us the outs, and we got outs.”

In the fourth inning, new third base coach Bobby Henley took an ill-advised chance. Adam LaRoche walked, and Zimmerman crushed a line drive off the wall, over Upton’s head. As Upton gathered the ball and fired it to cutoff man Andrelton Simmons, LaRoche sprinted around third.

LaRoche has lasted 11 years in the majors on the strength of many skills, but speed is not one of them. Simmons possesses one of the most powerful right arms in baseball. There was only one out. Harper loomed on deck. Henley, still, chose aggression. He sent LaRoche.

“We need to score runs,” Williams said. “I have no problem with that. We want to be aggressive in that situation, too.”

Simmons caught Upton’s throw and relayed a seed to catcher Evan Gattis. The ball arrived well before LaRoche, and he slid into Gattis’s mitt for the second out of the inning.

“As players, we like it when the third base coach is aggressive,” LaRoche said. “If you do that enough times, it’s going to pay off quite a bit.”

The Nationals threatened one last time. In the eighth, Anthony Rendon stroked a single to right-center, and Jayson Werth walked. Reeling, Carpenter’s inning turned when LaRoche took a 2-1 fastball just off the outside corner. Plate umpire Cory Blaser called it strike, and two pitches later, LaRoche stuck out.

Zimmerman foul-tipped a high fastball into Gattis’s mitt for strike three, which brought Harper to plate. Harper hung tough, holding back on two fastballs just off the corner and a curve in the dirt. On 3-2, Carpenter fired a 96-mph fastball headed toward his right knee.

“You can’t pull the trigger on it,” Nationals pinch hitter Nate McLouth said.

The pitch, somehow, tailed back over the inside edge of the plate. Harper couldn’t get the bat off his shoulder. Strike three.

“One hell of a pitch,” Gonzalez said.

Kimbrel dominated all three hitters he faced in the ninth. The Nationals will come back again Saturday, still trying to find a way to beat the Braves and their bullpen.

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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