For shortstop Ian Desmond and the Washington Nationals, a series win against visiting Atlanta proved to be out of reach. (John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The Washington Nationals took the field Sunday afternoon with an opportunity. They could have taken their opening series against the division rival Atlanta Braves, one of the favorites to make the National League playoffs. They could have validated their crisp first two games of the season, sent a statement to the league and set a tone for the season.

When the Nationals retreated to their clubhouse after an 11-2 debacle, they mostly wanted to forget what had transpired at Nationals Park before 22,210. Their defense committed its first error and bungled several other plays. Their offense managed four base runners in seven innings against nemesis Tim Hudson. Their bullpen unraveled to the tune of eight runs, including a six-run eighth that elicited a Bronx cheer upon the final out.

The Nationals had spent their first two games, a 2-0 loss and a 6-3 win, making the case that they had fundamentally changed from seasons past, that their defense had sharpened and their penchant for ugly losses had been erased. Then they spent their third game squandering the opportunity they created with their first two.

“We were a little flat,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “When you have a chance to go out and win a series, we should have played with a little more urgency. The first two games of the season, we played very well. I just think we expect more out of ourselves than we did today. It’s not like we didn’t go out there and try. It’s just, we need to have a little bit more sense of urgency when we have a chance to win a series. We believe we can win the series against every team.”

Buried in the Nationals’ dispiriting performance was Jordan Zimmermann’s promising 2011 debut. Zimmermann, beginning his first full season following his recovery from Tommy John surgery, allowed three runs, two earned, in six innings on four hits, three walks and two strikeouts. When he left the game, despite operating with the degree of difficulty provided by the Nationals’ defense, the Nationals trailed just 3-1.

At that point, Manager Jim Riggleman said: “It had the feel of a five- or six-run deficit, because we just were not playing good baseball. . . . The game just didn’t have the energy of the last two games, that’s what was disappointing. We just didn’t play good baseball today.”

The shabby defense, which stood in stark contrast to their first two games, began in the first inning. With one out and a man on first, Jones grounded to Danny Espinosa, a textbook double play chance. But Espinosa bobbled the ball on a short hop, forcing him to throw to first for only one out. Naturally, Brian McCann roped a single to center, scoring a run in an inning that could have been ended.

In the fifth, with the score still tied, the Braves took command with more Nationals miscues. Alex Gonzalez led off with a line drive to right-center. Neither Jayson Werth nor center fielder Rick Ankiel took charge, and the ball fell between them.

“Just good placement, unfortunately,” Ankiel said. “Good placement for him. Bad placement for us.”

Then Zimmermann made his worst misstep, walking Hudson. Prado followed with a double to right. Espinosa bobbled Werth’s one-hop relay throw, allowing Hudson to score and for Prado to scoot to third.

“Those are my mistakes I understand I made,” Espinosa said. “They’ll be fixed.”

Few pitchers have dominated the Nationals like Hudson, and Sunday they did come any closer to solving him. Adam LaRoche drove in Werth in the first, but Hudson would allow only two more hits in his seven innings, retiring the final 17 batters he faced. In 19 career starts against the Nationals, Hudson is 11-2 with a 1.87 ERA.

“If we had hung in there 3-1 and played clean, I’d be thinking more about how good Hudson was,” Riggleman said. “But as bad as we played today I don’t know that it mattered.”

While the Nationals embark on their first road trip, they will have another chance to prove themselves different from past versions. In prior seasons, the Nationals would submit a performance like Sunday’s and show up the next day unmoved. Zimmerman said no one would need to ensure the Nationals play with more urgency Tuesday in Florida.

“The good thing about this club is, nobody has to,” Zimmerman said. “We all know. In years past, I think that might not have been the case. This year, we realize we can’t do that in any game. You’re going to get your [butt] beat. You learn from it. It’s going to happen. In 162 games, it’s bound to happen a few times. The less we let it happen, the better we’re going to play.”

The Nationals could learn from their dreary showing Sunday. Their other option may be more palatable. “Overall,” Ankiel said, “just a day we want to forget.”