ATLANTA — Stephen Strasburg emerged from the visitors’ dugout at Turner Field just after 11 a.m. Saturday with a black glove on his left hand. He walked out to left field, stopped about 15 feet from the foul line and started playing catch. It was the first time Strasburg threw a baseball since exiting a game against the Atlanta Braves with a strained flexor mass 10 days earlier and leaving the Washington Nationals with a gaping hole in their starting rotation with the postseason looming in less than three weeks.
A few hours after Strasburg fist-bumped a trainer and walked off the field, Gio Gonzalez took the mound against the Atlanta Braves with a chance to ease some of the anxiety. Instead, Gonzalez, facing the Braves for the third time in a month, did not survive the fifth inning in the Nationals’ 7-3 loss, plagued by some misfortune and sloppiness.
“Gio was at his best. He made some good pitches,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “I mean, you didn’t see those balls blooping in there and stuff? You can’t do anything about that.”
The left-hander was charged with six runs on nine hits over 4⅓ innings. He had seven strikeouts and walked none but hit two batters. Of the nine hits, only three had an exit velocity of over 88 mph and one went for extra bases — Ender Inciarte’s leadoff double in the first inning. The rest were singles, often soft but enough to pile up and stifle the momentum created after Gonzalez beat the Philadelphia Phillies in his previous appearance. It was the fifth time this season Gonzalez failed to make it out of the fifth inning.
“The last outing, the balls they hit landed in gloves,” said a dispirited Gonzalez, who took his first loss in nine starts. “Now the balls they were hitting, they were finding hits that were a couple inches away from being an out.”
Gonzalez’s performance dimmed Trea Turner’s latest dazzling display. A day after becoming the first player in franchise history with four hits, four runs and two steals in a game, the 23-year-old converted center fielder began the game by launching a 77-mph change-up from Josh Collmenter just over the left field wall for his second career leadoff home run.
He later led off the fifth frame with another homer. It was his sixth against the Braves (57-91) and fourth at Turner Field (no relation), tying the Nationals’ franchise record for most home runs at the ballpark in a single season. He has 11 home runs in 253 at-bats since getting called up. He had 19 in 1,192 plate appearances in the minors. He added a single and a stolen base in the seventh inning Saturday and finished 3 for 4 with a walk. He is batting .356 with 27 steals in 59 games.
“I was laughing the whole time. I didn’t think I hit them,” Turner said of his two home runs. “I don’t know if I’ve ever done this in my entire life, hit for as much power in a short period of time. It’s different. It’s funny to me a little bit.”
Otherwise, the Nationals (88-60) squandered scoring opportunities against Collmenter, who allowed the leadoff or second hitter, or both, to reach base in each of his five innings. In the second, Collmenter issued three walks to load the bases with one out, but Gonzalez and Turner struck out to halt the threat. Collmenter, making his first start for Atlanta after being purchased from the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday, finished with eight strikeouts, equaling a career best.
In the third, Daniel Murphy cracked a double off the right field wall, just beating the throw from Nick Markakis with a head-first slide with one out. The double was his 184th hit, tying the club record for hits Denard Span set in 2014, and his 47th double, tying the club record Ryan Zimmerman established in 2006.
Murphy got up slowly in some pain, which warranted a visit from trainer Paul Lessard and Baker. He stayed in the game and ended up staying at second base because Bryce Harper grounded out to the shortstop and Anthony Rendon flied out to right field to conclude the inning with the score tied at 1. Harper went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts. He is hitless in his past 24 plate appearances with nine walks and seven strikeouts.
“I’ve been concerned about Bryce for a while,” Baker said. “I just know that he keeps swinging, he’s going to be Bryce. And I’m just hoping it happens in the nick of time, come the last couple weeks of September and the playoffs.”
Gonzalez was perfect in the second and fourth innings, but he labored in odd-numbered frames. After scoring a run in the first, the Braves registered four straight hits to begin the third, resulting in two runs.
In the fifth, they landed the knockout blows against Gonzalez. Inciarte and Adonis Garcia, who combined to go 5 for 8 with a walk and hit by pitch, singled to begin the frame. Two batters later, Gonzalez hit Matt Kemp with a pitch, which coaxed pitching coach Mike Maddux out to the mound for a visit. The chat did not have the desired result — Markakis roped a single to right field that plated Inciarte — and Baker walked out to pull a frustrated Gonzalez after 88 pitches.
“Had they been hitting him hard all over the park, then you know he wasn’t making good pitches,” Baker said. “But just the fact that he took the sting out of the bats showed me he was making pitches.”
The defeat was the Nationals’ third in 18 games against the Braves. They’ll return to bid farewell to Turner Field on Sunday with Joe Ross, another option to fill in for Strasburg in the playoff rotation, as their starting pitcher.