ATLANTA — The Washington Nationals came here this weekend with a chance to push their struggling division rival into a deeper hole. Armed with their biggest lead of the season in the National League East, the Nationals failed to take advantage. They dropped two of three games, capped by Sunday's 3-1 defeat.
The Nationals still have a 31 / 2-game lead over the Atlanta Braves with 46 games to play. But their inability to grab the division by the throat, especially against the team chasing them, has been an unnerving trend. This weekend felt more like a holding pattern. They lost one game in the standings but could just as easily gained more. The teams scored the same number of runs in the three games, but the Braves did just enough to narrowly pull out two victories.
"We definitely should have won the series," center fielder Denard Span said. "We had opportunities to win two out of three and we should have won [Sunday]."
Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez couldn't overcome his command issues, and a mental gaffe, and the Braves made him work harder. The Nationals' offense could do little against Braves left-handed starter Alex Wood, who struck out a career-high 12 in front of a prime-time Sunday night audience. In his second inning of relief, Jerry Blevins gave up a valuable insurance run to the Braves in the eighth.
With the loss, the Nationals dropped to 4-9 against the Braves this season. Since the start of the 2013 season, the Nationals are 10-22 against Atlanta.
"We had some opportunities that we didn't capitalize on," Manager Matt Williams said. "But that's going to happen."
The first few innings of Sunday's game were a strikeout fest. Gonzalez faced nine batters in the first two innings and struck out six. Wood faced nine and struck out four, including three in a row when the Nationals had two men on with no outs in the second inning.
The Nationals have throttled left-handed pitching all season but Wood isn't a typical left-hander. His jerky, limbs-flailing delivery can throw off any batter. "He was funky," Span said. "Messes up your timing."
Wood mowed through the Nationals' lineup, proving especially difficult on the left-handed batters except for Span, who extended his on-base streak to 36 straight games. Only twice did the Nationals manage to get two men on base in the same inning against Wood.
Even with his starter's pitch count at 114, Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez let Wood take the mound in the eighth inning. Wood walked Jayson Werth for the third time but then struck out Adam LaRoche for a fourth time. He left the mound to a standing ovation before reliever David Carpenter induced an inning-ending double play groundball from Desmond.
On the other side, Gonzalez was his own worst enemy. He was given a slim 1-0 lead in the fourth inning when Desmond crushed a Wood fastball to right-center field for a solo home run. As Desmond raced around the bases, a Braves fan threw the ball back onto the field and the crowd cheered. But Gonzalez gave the lead right back in the bottom half.
Gonzalez battled the inning's leadoff hitter, Justin Upton, for 10 pitches, many of them fastballs on the outer half of the plate. With a 3-2 count, Gonzalez threw a change-up low and over the plate. Upton sent the ball over the left field fence, tying the game at 1.
Gonzalez gave up two one-out singles, received a mound visit from pitching coach Steve McCatty and then escaped the inning. But his pitch count was already at 88 and he was only through four innings. In all, of Gonzalez's 111 pitches, the Braves fouled off 33.
In the fifth, Atlanta's Emilio Bonifacio dragged a bunt up the first base line to start the inning and Gonzalez threw the ball between his legs toward first base, like a center hiking a football to a quarterback. LaRoche and Bonifacio collided, and the ball sailed past LaRoche. Gonzalez then sandwiched a double play with two walks to set up a bizarre play.
Jason Heyward hit a groundball on the right side of the infield and second baseman Danny Espinosa raced over to stop it. But so did LaRoche. Gonzalez started to run toward first to cover, then stopped and then started to run again. By then, it was too late. Heyward reached safely, and Bonifacio scored to give the Braves a 2-1 lead.
"I should’ve got over," Gonzalez said. "Simple as that. There's no excuse. You gotta get over on that ball. Keep your team in the game. All the credit goes to the guys in the bullpen who picked up my slack."
Last season, Werth and Gonzalez got into an argument in the dugout when Gonzalez didn't cover first base. And entering spring training, Gonzalez vowed to improve on that part of his game. He had been better about that this season until the crucial spot on Sunday.
"Ultimately, that's the difference in the game," Williams said. "If it's 1-1 there, then we have a different story."
LaRoche also put blame on himself for not covering first and trying for the grounder, too, knowing that Espinosa was in position to make the play.
"I should’ve got a better read on the ball and obviously [Gio] should have been over there," LaRoche said. "Just very typical of how we give up runs against these guys. Or just like [Evan] Gattis' at-bat. They push those runs across in some odd ways against us."
Once the Braves took the lead, Williams took Gonzalez out of the game and turned the ball over to reliever Craig Stammen, who fired 11 / 3 scoreless innings. Blevins took over in the seventh inning and struck out the side with some of his best stuff of the season.
But in the eighth inning, with two on, two out and his pitch count at 29, Williams let Blevins face pinch hitter Gattis, who hits left-handed pitching well. Blevins has also struggled against right-handed batters this season.
Blevins threw a low curveball with two strikes, and Gattis hit a bloop single to right that gave the Braves a two-run cushion. After the game, Williams said he left Blevins in because the Nationals were down a run and he didn't want to turn the game over to the back-end relievers again.
"I feel like I pitched well," Blevins said. "Unfortunately I gave up that run. A two-run lead there, too, against [Craig] Kimbrel coming in, it's a lot bigger deal than a one-run lead. It was a big run."
Kimbrel fired a perfect ninth inning to end the game and send the Nationals away with little accomplished in the division standings for now.
The Nationals head to New York to face the Mets, while the Braves have a difficult schedule ahead with the Dodgers and Athletics.
"Obviously you want to beat them, but at the same time you've got to shake it off," Desmond said. "I know the Mets are hungry to beat us so we've got to focus on them now and worry about what we can."