ATLANTA — The Washington Nationals have spent most of the first two months of the season too worried about their own problems and too far behind the Atlanta Braves to even bother looking up at them. Saturday night at Turner Field, as the Nationals shoved aside their injuries and mounted a rally against Atlanta’s untouchable closer, the National League East race seemed ready to start in earnest.
The Nationals were simply not ready. Their flat-lining offense stalled at the worst time, and their worn bullpen gave out in a 2-1, 10-inning defeat. After the Nationals put runners on second and third with no outs in the ninth inning against Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, Henry Rodriguez misfired, allowing a walk-off single to B.J. Upton in the 10th.
A classic pitching duel between Gio Gonzalez and Tim Hudson led to a confrontation between two bullpens, and the Braves — the team that didn’t need seven innings of relief the night before — out-flanked them.
“Well, that was a tough one,” Manager Davey Johnson said, echoing a familiar refrain. “We had our chances. It’s frustrating.”
Rather than winning their fourth straight game against the Braves, winning the series with a game to go and slashing the NL East lead to 31 / 2 games, the Nationals absorbed a deflating loss hours after they placed Bryce Harper on the disabled list.
The game ended when Rodriguez, typically too flammable to use any time other than in blowouts, could not hold the Braves in the 10th. Evan Gattis walked on four pitches to lead off the inning. “You can’t walk people,” Johnson said. “He didn’t come close to the first guy.”
The Braves gave Rodriguez an out when Ramiro Pena popped up a sac bunt, and then pinch runner Jordan Schafer stole second with Kurt Suzuki not even bothering to throw.
“In that situation, I focus on the hitter and don’t worry about the runner,” Rodriguez said. “In that situation, tie game, I worry about the hitter. I want to do everything perfect.”
Rodriguez, who was walking an astronomical 7.1 batters per nine innings coming in, walked Dan Uggla, anyway. With one out, Upton flared a single into shallow right field. Roger Bernadina charged and fired an on-target, one-hop throw to the plate. Schafer dove in head first, a tick before Suzuki’s tag. The Braves dog-piled on Upton, a $75 million free agent who had entered the night hitting .145.
“It was right where I wanted it,” Rodriguez said. “He got lucky. He got me.”
The Nationals had lost the game in the ninth.
Kimbrel, dominant against the Nationals, entered to pitch the ninth with the score tied at 1. Ryan Zimmerman’s broken-bat single and Adam LaRoche’s double to the gap put runners on second and third in with no outs. But that was still Kimbrel out on the mound, and that was still the Nationals’ scuffling offense.
“All we had to do was the put the ball in play,” Johnson said. “A little sac fly.”
Kimbrel fed Ian Desmond a slider inside, the best pitch Desmond saw to hit, but the shortstop fouled it off. “He was trying to go the other way, and he jammed himself,” Johnson said. Kimbrel struck out Desmond looking at a 2-2 fastball.
“Ninety-eight on the black,” Desmond said. “He froze me up.”
Bernadina “took one right down the middle” to begin his at-bat, Johnson said. He then grounded to third base. Chris Johnson threw Zimmerman out at home with yards to spare.
“I tried to find my pitch I could drive to put us on the board,” Bernadina said. “I didn’t do it, and he did his job.”
Up came Danny Espinosa, batting .164 entering the game and playing with a tear in his left rotator cuff and a bone chip in his right wrist. He popped the first pitch he saw to left field, where it settled in Justin Upton’s glove. Kimbrel pumped his first on the way off the field.
After the zero, Johnson needed a reliever for the bottom of the ninth. Tyler Clippard had thrown 32 pitches the night before and was not available. Drew Storen had already pitched a scoreless eighth. Craig Stammen had been exhausted the night before relieving Stephen Strasburg. He wanted to preserve Rafael Soriano for a save situation.
And so Johnson turned to Fernando Abad, a left-hander who spent all of April and most of May at Class AAA. Pinch hitter Reed Johnson greeted him with a single up the middle. Davey Johnson surely wanted any other matchup than Abad against right-handed slugger Justin Upton – but, again, he had little choice.
Abad worked a 3-2 count against Upton, getting one strike with a lazy, 75-mph change-up at Upton’s neck. “Some people tell me, ‘The ball stops,’” Abad said.
On 3-2, Abad fired a 91-mph fastball inside at Upton’s ankles. He swung and missed for the first out. Freddie Freeman pulverized a line drive — right at Espinosa. With Johnson running to second, Espinosa flipped the ball to first for an inning-ending double play.
For seven innings, Gonzalez and Hudson, the Nationals’ nemesis, engaged in a pitching duel and stifled both offenses. They both left with the score tied at 1, having each allowed three hits and one walk. Gonzalez struck out seven to Hudson’s four; the Nationals needed an error to score their run off Hudson, while the Braves used a leadoff walk for their lone tally against Gonzalez.
In his third chance against Atlanta, Gonzalez avenged two rare starts in which the opposing lineup hit him hard. From the start, even as he sweat through his thick, floppy Homestead Gray throwback jersey, Gonzalez was sharp. He whiffed Jason Heyward and Justin Upton in the first inning.
The Braves turned Uggla’s leadoff walk in the third inning into a run, but otherwise Gonzalez either cruised or erased minor trouble. The Braves’ fearsome middle of the order — two-through-five hitters Heyward, Justin Upton, Freeman and Gattis — went 0 for 12 with six strikeouts against Gonzalez.
“I just wanted to keep it as close as possible,” Gonzalez said. “Everyone battled. I’m proud of these guys. They work their tails off every game. As a starting pitcher, you have to make sure to keep your team in the game as much as possible.”