The Nationals watch during the ninth inning of their loss to the Braves, who trimmed Washington’s NL East lead to 31 / 2 games with Friday’s 7-6 victory. (Dave Tulis/AP)

Friday’s showdown between the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves began ugly. Stephen Strasburg dug the Nationals a deep hole by giving up three home runs before the second inning was over. Then the game turned scary, as right fielder Steven Souza Jr. lay at the base of right field, crumbling to the ground after trying to pull back one of those home runs. 

Then the Nationals nearly erased the gloom of the rain-soaked game after trailing by seven runs. In the opener of their most important series of the season against the Braves, the Nationals mounted a rally before and after a 71-minute rain delay in the sixth inning. But even a spirited six-run comeback couldn’t erase Strasburg’s rotten start nor the jittery nerves after Souza’s nasty collision in a 7-6 loss.

“We were down early but fought back hard,” Manager Matt Williams said. “The guys really fought [Friday]. Not quite enough at the end.”

The Nationals came to Atlanta with their biggest lead in the National League East and looking to tack on more. And even though the Braves entered Friday with an eight-game losing streak, their dominance over the Nationals continued. With Friday’s loss, the division lead was trimmed to 31 / 2 games and the Nationals fell to 9-20 against the Braves since 2013, including 3-8 this season. At Turner Field, Washington is 4-10.

The Nationals nearly completed an inspiring comeback despite a lineup that lacked Jayson Werth and then lost Souza. After being tamed by Braves starter Ervin Santana for five innings, Washington scored four runs against him in the sixth inning. Then the steady rain turned heavier and forced the teams off the field. 

When the game resumed, the Nationals’ bats continued to chip away against Atlanta’s bullpen in the seventh. Wilson Ramos hit a towering solo shot past the first section of seats in left field. Kevin Frandsen reached on an error and then raced from first to third on a single to left by Denard Span. Asdrubal Cabrera lifted a flyball to left field for a sacrifice fly that trimmed the Nationals’ deficit to one. The rally ended when Anthony Rendon flew out to center. 

“It’s hard to see the score at seven-nothing,” Ramos said. “It’s hard for the team. But I know what kind of team we have and I know what teammates I have.”

At the heart of Friday’s defeat was Strasburg’s perplexing season. He struck out nine over five innings to push his total to NL-leading total to 186, yet he allowed seven hits, four home runs and a career-tying seven runs.

“I don’t really know how to work on it,” Strasburg said. “Some days, I'm hitting the spot. Other days, I’m a couple inches up. I’ve just got to roll with it, try to miss down instead of miss up.”

After Friday’s start, Strasburg’s ERA in 15 career starts against the Braves rose to 4.62 and to 6.99 in seven starts at Turner Field.

Strasburg has struggled with the first inning this season and that didn’t change on Friday. Freeman drew a hard-earned walk with two outs and Justin Upton followed with a two-run shot to center. Upton got a fastball on the outside part of the plate, where he could extend his arms and do damage.

With a runner on base and two outs in the second inning, Strasburg fired a curveball over the inner half of the plate to B.J. Upton. The ball broke over the plate and Upton kept his hands inside long enough to drill a two-run homer to left field. It was Upton’s first home run in 159 plate appearances.

“He’s missing on the plate not off the plate,” Ramos said.