Braves 5, Nationals 4

They were one pitch from getting the kind of extraordinary bullpen performance that has become routine for the Washington Nationals. That pitch, which would have ended the eighth inning last night at RFK Stadium, could have come from Hector Carrasco to Ryan Langerhans, but Langerhans doubled. It could have come from Carrasco to Wilson Betemit, but the utility infielder instead launched a game-tying home run.

And as all this happened -- as the pitch that would have gone a long way toward winning the game never came -- Gary Majewski and Chad Cordero sat in the bullpen, fidgeting through their awkward night off.

"I needed it," Cordero said. But to beat the Atlanta Braves, the Nationals needed their best relievers, and they didn't have them. So they lost, a 5-4 decision that the Braves stole by scoring three runs off Carrasco with two outs in the eighth, including the game-winning hit by Marcus Giles off T.J. Tucker. Instead of pulling within a half-game of the Braves and Florida Marlins in the National League East -- and playing for first today -- the Nationals slipped 21/2 back and ended their three-game winning streak in particularly painful fashion.

"It's just disappointing to lose the way we did," center fielder Brad Wilkerson said. "We didn't do anything wrong to lose that game -- except make that one mistake. It hurts."

It hurts in part because the Nationals can't afford to hurt either Majewski, who has become an ace setup man, or Cordero, their sometimes shaky closer who has nevertheless saved each of his last 10 opportunities. Majewski had pitched for three straight days and four of the previous five, Cordero in four straight. So the Nationals' normal flow of the late innings -- Luis Ayala and Majewski setting up Cordero -- changed. On this night, Carrasco needed to set up Ayala.

"Those guys can only do so much," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "Run 'em into the ground in May, the first day of June, they're not going to be there for you in July and August."

So the Nationals wasted a solid six-inning, two-run performance by starter Tony Armas Jr., who battled out of a one-out, bases-loaded situation in the sixth and rediscovered his slider. And they wasted a decent offensive effort against Atlanta starter John Smoltz, who gave up three runs in the second on doubles by Nick Johnson, Ryan Church and Brian Schneider and a wild pitch.

But more than that, they wasted a chance. When Carrasco entered the game in the seventh, he was handed a 4-2 lead. Forget that Majewski, Ayala and Cordero have combined for a 1.82 ERA. Carrasco, the 35-year-old journeyman who has been a surprising contributor thus far, needed to contribute in their place.

"We came pretty close," Robinson said.

Close enough that the Nationals were that one pitch away from focusing on Carrasco's strikeout of Chipper Jones in the seventh, or his strikeout of Andruw Jones to open the eighth, two of the Braves' most dangerous hitters.

But after getting Johnny Estrada -- who hit a solo homer off Armas -- on a grounder, Carrasco broke down. Langerhans, a rookie hitting just .188 coming into the game, doubled down the left field line, giving the Braves some hope. That brought up Betemit, the eighth-place hitter who was inserted into the lineup less than an hour before game time because regular shortstop Rafael Furcal came up with a sore shoulder.

Carrasco fired a first-pitch slider.

"It didn't do nothing," Carrasco said, holding his hand waist-high. "It stayed right there."

At least, until Betemit swung. He lifted the ball high into the black sky. Nationals right fielder Jose Guillen raced back and jumped to the top of the wall, but the ball bounced in the bullpen as Guillen crumpled at the base of the wall, the game tied.

"That's the only pitch," Carrasco said, "my only bad pitch."

It was costly. Carrasco then walked pinch hitter Julio Franco, who had worked the count full. He was replaced by Tucker. Pete Orr, running for Franco, managed to steal second base -- even though Tucker and Schneider, the catcher, had called a pitchout.

That left it to Giles, who worked the count full against Tucker, then served a ball into left field, easily scoring Orr. The Nationals' recent aura -- they had won three straight one-run games -- seemed to evaporate as the ball skipped through the grass.

"It's just a tough one to swallow," Church said, "especially having a two-run lead."

The Nationals, though, tend to swallow these things, then spit them back out. They were moments from taking their sixth win in eight games against Atlanta this season, all the while knowing they were 4-15 against the Braves last year. They have one more game against them today -- a chance to win the four-game series -- then welcome the Marlins for an important weekend series. The standings may not matter right now, not in June. The swagger, however, does.

"We've got to come out and win the series," Church said. "We don't want to split with these guys. We definitely want to send a message to the rest of the NL East that we're here to stay."

Marcus Giles singles in the eighth for the game-winning run, after Wilson Betemit hit a tying, two-run homer. Braves utility infielder Wilson Betemit circles the bases behind Nationals reliever Hector Carrasco after tying the game with a two-out, two-run homer in the eighth inning.Pete Orr slides home with the game-winning run in the eighth on Marcus Giles's single.