ATLANTA — The Washington Nationals were a tick behind Sunday night — or maybe a few ticks — with their best drives falling just short, their gloves bobbling routine plays, their effort against the Atlanta Braves lagging, and lagging some more, until a lopsided loss was complete.
A 7-1 defeat left Washington with a split of the four-game series, keeping Atlanta without close company atop the National League East. The Nationals are again 6½ games back, right where they started this taxing weekend, and they’ll now have to take better advantage of the 10 remaining matchups between these teams. Six will come in Washington. The other four will be here at SunTrust Park. They may just decide the division.
The Nationals couldn’t quite solve Braves starter Kevin Gausman, despite a handful of loud outs, managing to score just once as he turned in seven solid innings. Washington got 5⅓ frames from spot starter Joe Ross, who allowed three runs, but Manager Dave Martinez pushed him a bit too far before the bullpen stumbled. Reliever Javy Guerra let Atlanta pull away with two runs in the seventh. Ronald Acuña Jr. piled on with a two-run homer off Kyle McGowin in the eighth.
It all amounted to a missed opportunity.
“You were hoping to make up a couple games,” Martinez said. “And we didn’t do that.”
The Nationals entered Sunday with a chance to make up two games in this series. That would have matched how much ground they had made up in the past month, despite posting the majors’ best record, because the Braves have matched Washington’s surge with one of their own. That’s the reality of digging out of a deep hole: You can only do so much before other teams have to help, too.
But Washington has done its part, and then some, and even rode a bit of history into this matchup: A Nationals starter had not taken a loss since June 15. That 27-game stretch matched a record set by the New York Giants in 1916. It shows Washington’s strong rotation, how often its offense stages comebacks and why it is still atop the NL wild-card standings. The streak was handed to Ross, and then snapped by him, once he arrived off a flight from Reno, Nev.
The career starter didn’t fit in the bullpen earlier this season — finishing with an 11.05 ERA in 17 appearances — and was optioned back to Class AAA Fresno in late June. Ross made eight starts there with mixed results. Then he received another chance because Max Scherzer is still recovering from inflammation in the bursa under his right shoulder blade and Austin Voth is now on the injured list with right biceps tendinitis, leaving Washington scrambling to find guys fill the gaps.
So there was Ross, on the mound at SunTrust Park, mixing his sinker, slider and four-seam fastball against the heavy-hitting Braves. He allowed two runs on three hits and a walk in the first inning. He fell into a 3-2 count against three of the first four batters he faced. His pitch count spiked to 35. But then he found a rhythm by letting his heart rate settle, and the Nationals wrestled with Gausman and bad luck.
“I think it’s a little bit of both,” second baseman Brian Dozier said of whether the Nationals were held back by Gausman or tough breaks. “A lot of people hit the ball really well, but he continued to go after us with a lot of heaters.”
They made hard contact early off the Braves right-hander, rocketing three balls that were caught along the warning track. Anthony Rendon did the same in the seventh, causing the home crowd to sigh, but the ball sunk into Ender Inciarte’s glove against the center field wall. Rendon squinted at the fence, shook his head and smiled. It was that kind of game.
Yet Gausman, who came in with a 6.21 ERA and just came off the IL, also carved through the Nationals’ order with well-placed fastballs. He finished with eight strikeouts. The Nationals’ aggressive approach only helped him keep a low pitch count. Ross, meanwhile, made it through five innings on 88 pitches and kept the damage to two runs. But that’s when Martinez got a bit too greedy.
The manager could have pinch-hit for Ross in the sixth, with his spot up first and the Nationals trailing by two. But Martinez’s bench was down to three players — after Ryan Zimmerman exited once the plantar fasciitis in his right foot flared up — and his bullpen was down a few arms. So Ross hit, and struck out swinging, and Josh Donaldson whacked his 23rd homer of the season on Ross’s second pitch of the inning’s bottom half. Ross got one more out and allowed a single before Martinez hooked him for Tony Sipp.
“I feel like if it’s even three runs, it’s definitely manageable,” Ross said of giving the Nationals’ hitters a chance. “But today their guy went out and pitched really well.”
Washington never did cover the first two runs Ross allowed. The choice to leave him in may not have mattered by game’s end. But it still left the Nationals with a larger deficit, and that turned into a loss, and that evened the series before they headed home for 10 games.
For the first time in 27 contests, the Nationals weren’t tied or ahead in the seventh inning or later. And for the first time in weeks, a late push never came.