Braves 8, Nationals 7

The difference between a successful mission to Atlanta and a failed one for the Washington Nationals -- the difference, perhaps, between sustained hope in the playoff race and near-hopelessness -- was now streaking through the air, in the form of a towering fly ball off the bat of Atlanta Braves slugger Andruw Jones. As it came to earth on the seat side of the outfield fence in left-center field, the ecstatic Braves streamed out of their dugout, and the Nationals' outfielders began the long, slow walk back to theirs.

One minute passed, then two minutes, then three, then four. And finally, Nationals right fielder Jose Guillen, the slowest of the slow-walkers, reached the top step of the Nationals' dugout, paused to take one last look back at the field and disappeared into the tunnel.

Such was the momentous shift in fortunes that occurred for the Nationals between the top of the seventh inning Thursday night, when they completed a stirring comeback from a six-run deficit, and the bottom of the 10th, when Jones's solo homer off Nationals right-hander Luis Ayala gave the Braves an 8-7 victory in front of 19,053 faithful at Turner Field. The loss sent the Nationals back to Washington -- slowly, no doubt -- with the painful knowledge that they fell far short of their goal this week and, in the process, did serious damage to their playoff hopes.

"It's a terrible loss," said center fielder Marlon Byrd, who beat Guillen to the dugout by a matter of seconds. "We had so many chances."

The night's toll was made worse by the news that second baseman Jose Vidro may be severely hampered for the rest of the season after wrenching his right knee while running out a single in the fourth inning. He will have an MRI exam Friday in Washington.

Veteran third baseman Vinny Castilla, playing as if his job is being threatened by some fresh-faced September call-up -- which, in fact, it is; Nationals fans, meet Ryan Zimmerman -- drove home the tying runs with a two-run single in the seventh, his second two-run single of the night, to complete the comeback from a 7-1 deficit.

But three innings later, it was Jones who won the game. His game-winning homer, on a belt-high 1-2 fastball from Ayala, ruined an otherwise stellar performance by the Nationals' bullpen, which held the Braves hitless from the start of the fifth inning until the end of the ninth. Ayala had not pitched since Aug. 21, because of tendinitis in his elbow, although his pitches to Jones were clocked in the mid-90s.

It was Jones's 44th homer and his 18th game-winning RBI, both highs in the NL, as the smooth center fielder added to his growing MVP resume.

Clearly, with September now upon us, treading water no longer suffices in the woolly, wacky, five-deep National League wild-card race. Although the Nationals emerged from this four-game series against the best team in their division with a split -- a solid showing, by most accounts -- they still came away with a net loss of a half-game in the standings and the feeling that something very meaningful was lost.

At seven games back of the division-leading Braves and three games behind wild-card-leading Philadelphia, the Nationals are further out of a playoff spot than they have been all season.

And so, the Nationals return home to face a 10-game homestand against three of the teams they are chasing -- beginning Friday night against the Phillies -- that will go a long way toward determining their fate. Sixteen of the Nationals' next 22 games, in fact, are at RFK Stadium.

Down six runs Thursday night in the middle of the game, thanks to another ineffective start by right-hander Tony Armas -- who gave up 850 feet worth of homers to Chipper Jones and Jeff Francoeur in the first three innings -- and with their playoff hopes getting shakier by the minute, the Nationals suddenly felt it was okay to start running into cringe-inducing outs.

The team that has scored the fewest runs in baseball, including a whopping 10 in its previous five games, suddenly decided it could afford to squander a couple of runs on the base paths -- once, when Castilla forgot the number of outs and got doubled off first base on a fly ball to center in the fourth inning, and another, an inning later, when Carlos Baerga ran toward third base when it was already occupied by Byrd.

"I've been preaching to the guys out there, if you . . . keep making these silly mistakes, it comes back to haunt you in close ballgames, ballgames you should win," Robinson said afterward. "You're taking away opportunities from yourselves. We're beating ourselves more often than we're getting beat."

Those transgressions had Robinson steaming as he leaned against the rail on the top step of the dugout. He gave a stern tongue-lashing to first base coach Don Buford -- whose job it is to remind the runner of the number of outs -- after the first incident, and he gave a very cold shoulder to third base coach Dave Huppert following the second.

"I don't need an explanation. I don't want to hear it, as a matter of fact," Robinson said, when asked about Buford's mistake. "There's no excuse for that. There's no excuse for either one of them."

As it turns out, the Nationals were half-right about being able to afford the mistakes. They had enough offense left in them, despite the miscues, to tie the game against Smoltz and the Braves' leaky bullpen.

But they did not have enough to finish the job. It was a long walk in to the dugout when the game was over, but it is a short, short season now.

Nationals starter Tony Armas Jr. wipes his brow during the third inning, in which he gave up five runs, three coming on a Jeff Francoeur homer.The Braves' Andruw Jones hits a solo home run off Luis Ayala in the 10th inning to give Atlanta an 8-7 win over the Nationals.Tony Armas Jr. gave up seven runs, all of them earned, in just four innings.