Nationals unable to capi­tal­ize on chances, fall to red-hot Braves, 3-2

Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post - Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos rounds second base and eventually heads for home where he was thrown out to end the first inning.

The smallest things matter in baseball, a sport that is nothing but a collection of small things — the fastball on the black that makes the count 1-2 instead of 2-1, the two steps closer to the line, the sinking liner that finds a patch of earth rather than leather. The unremitting season rewards teams that create and exploit tiny advantages. On the right night, between the right teams, that central truth may be distilled into one moment.

The Atlanta Braves’ lead in the National League East grew to 131 / 2 games Monday night after a 3-2 victory over the Washington Nationals. The obvious cause came in the eighth inning, when Tyler Clippard hung a 3-2 change-up and Justin Upton smashed it into the left field seats. But the game hinged earlier, as the Nationals failed to capitalize on so many chances and Stephen Strasburg undercut his own brilliance in one careless instant.

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The Braves’ winning streak reached 11 games as the Nationals squandered a now-or-never chance to gain ground. No matter the math, over the next two games the Braves can extinguish the Nationals’ realistic hope. Enough small things have created an expansive distance between the two teams.

“When you’re in first place, you want to step on their necks,” Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “Especially when you’ve got this big of a lead you can expand it a little bit more against them. I think we set the tone tonight.”

The Braves have bludgeoned plenty of opponents, and the Nationals have been blown out with alarming frequency. But the Nationals’ deficit inched closer to insurmountable because two season-long trends continued: the Braves’ ability to execute and the Nationals’ frequent abandoning of fundamentals, right up until the end.

All-world closer Craig Kimbrel was unavailable after he pitched three straight days, an edge to be exploited. Jordan Walden’s 97-mph fastballs, thrown as he literally leaps at the hitter, are not exactly batting practice. “But at the same time, is Kimbrel a better pitcher?” Nationals outfielder Scott Hairston asked. “Yes, he is.”

Anthony Rendon led off the ninth against Walden with a single up the middle, another golden chance – the Nationals had already put the leadoff man on base and failed to score in five innings. Manager Davey Johnson signaled for Denard Span to bunt for a hit.

“I didn’t want a straight sacrifice,” Johnson said.

Span, who had started the game on the bench, looked at the Braves’ defensive alignment, with the infielders pinching on the corners, and found bunting for a hit untenable. He dropped a sacrifice and moved Rendon to second.

“When he gave it to me, it was kind of tough, because you know it’s a bunt situation and both sides are crashing,” Span said. “So, I mean, in hindsight, I’m like, ‘Why would he give me the base-hit bunt?’ It’s not surprising anybody.”

Span had accomplished a task, and then the Nationals received another break. Walden’s wild pitch pushed Rendon to third with one out. Johnson stuck with Hairston, a right-handed hitter who had swatted two doubles, rather than send up lefty Roger Bernadina. Needing only to loft a sacrifice fly, Hairston popped up a low, 2-0 fastball behind the plate. Catcher Brian McCann made the catch against the backstop.

“When you’re in that position to help the team win and you don’t do it, it’s somewhat of a disappointment,” Hairston said. “And we all feel the same way.”

Chad Tracy lined out to left, and the Nationals had squandered another opportunity. Look past the Upton’s laser of a homer off Clippard, the Nationals’ best reliever all year, to lead off the eighth inning. (“Not a good pitch,” Clippard said. “The timing of it couldn’t be worse, you know? It’s amazing.”) Set aside, even, how the Nationals went 1 for 10 with runners in scoring position. The moment the game turned happened when Strasburg stood on the mound and simply held the ball.

With two outs in the fifth, Upton poked a single to center field. Strasburg fell behind Freeman with two balls. He fell into an obvious pattern between pitches, and Upton noticed. As Strasburg came set to deliver, Upton bolted for second, a running start before Strasburg had started his delivery.

“You know, it happens,” Strasburg said. “I got caught in having a predictable time to home plate. He took a gamble.”

Upton scooted into second without a throw, a stolen base Strasburg had served on a platter. On the very next pitch, Freeman scalded a 3-0 fastball to center for another single. Upton cruised home and gave the Braves a 2-1 lead.

No one could rightly fault Strasburg for the Nationals’ loss. He struck out nine Braves over seven innings and finished with menace, retiring the final six hitters he faced in 18 pitches. The Braves managed five hits against him, all singles, and just one walk.

“I feel like I didn’t let up for seven innings,” Strasburg said.

His offense, oppressed by Braves lefty Mike Minor, had again left him an unfairly small margin for error. And yet, the one moment made himself vulnerable, the Braves pounced.

“We’ve worked with him and worked with him,” Johnson said. “Too regular. He has the same pattern every time. He’s very quick to the plate, but he is locked in his ways.”

The Braves had scored their first run in the third inning by virtue of putting the ball in play and catching breaks — “a joke,” Johnson called it. Jason Heyward and Upton reached on infield singles, and Freeman served a soft liner to right field. Three hits, none particularly fierce, combined to tie the score at 1.

“The lucky golf swing,” Freeman said. “I don’t know how I did that.”

That, too, typified the Nationals’ night. The Braves’ cobbled a run out of three bleeders, and the Nationals ripped liner drives into gloves. In the seventh, Bryce Harper smoked a one-out liner to right, straight at Heyward, with Hairston on second after a leadoff double. Adam LaRoche, who drove in the Nationals’ first run with a double to left center, ended the eighth with a laser at shortstop Andrelton Simmons.

“Have good ABs, put a good swing on the ball, hit it right to a guy,” Strasburg said. “Terrible contact, and they somehow dump it over somebody’s head.”

The small things sometimes include luck, and for one night the Braves found more. But they also took advantage when it came. The Nationals could only regret how another set of chances had slipped away.

 
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