ATLANTA — Finally, the Washington Nationals could return to baseball. After consecutive extra-inning marathons that featured plunkings, retaliation and ejections, they could focus solely on playing the Atlanta Braves. After another loss to their National League East nemesis, perhaps the sideshow dramatics seemed preferable. They would, at least, have provided for livelier watching.
The Nationals have tried to stand up to the Braves all season, but they keep getting smacked around and doomed by their own mistakes. Sunday’s 2-1 loss and series defeat added to the disappointment. The game ended with Bryce Harper walking off the field, visibly upset at an umpire, after he was called out on a check swing with the tying run on first base.
The loss was the Nationals’ 12th in 16 meetings with Atlanta. The Braves have won six of the eight one-run games between the teams. They possess a seemingly insurmountable 15½-game lead in the NL East standings and only three more games between them remain. On the field, the Nationals’ fiercest rival has been undoubtedly better. But Nationals center fielder Denard Span refuses to believe there is that large of a gap between them.
“It just seems like they find a way to win,” Span said. “Even [Saturday] night, we were able to win, but they’ve broken our hearts time and time again. We’ve had the leads. I think they’ve probably come back at least four of those  wins, and that can crush a team. I haven’t played against a team like that in a while where they just have our number.”
If only it were that simple. The Nationals’ performance was, as right fielder Jayson Werth described earlier in the series, just good enough to lose. They hurt themselves with 11 stranded base runners on Sunday. They hit 1 for 13 with runners in scoring position on Sunday and 5 for 37 in the series.
“It’s not like we’re laying over and letting these guys walk all over us,” starter Gio Gonzalez said. “We’re fighting.”
Only 13 hours before Sunday’s first pitch, the Nationals completed their wildest game of the season. It featured three ejections. It lasted 5 hours 29 minutes. Every Nationals reliever was used and Tuesday’s scheduled starter, Dan Haren, earned the save in the 8-7, 15-inning win. So Sunday, the Nationals needed Gonzalez to deliver a strong performance. He did, but the team’s margin of error remained as slim as its playoff chances.
Gonzalez’s start began in troubling fashion against a Braves lineup that featured a handful of fill-ins. He walked the first batter he faced, B.J. Upton, who has a .269 on-base percentage. Upton then stole second base, which could have been prevented if Gonzalez had stepped off the rubber. Another Nationals weakness — holding runners on base — was exposed again.
Ahead 2-1 in the count, Phil Gosselin dropped a bunt down the third base line and beat the throw to first from third baseman Chad Tracy, who was playing for Ryan Zimmerman. Freddie Freeman lined the first fastball he saw into center field to score Upton from third base. Gonzalez induced a double play and nearly escaped the inning, but Chris Johnson flared a low and inside fastball to right field for a single to plate another run.
Those were the only runs Gonzalez would allow. He buckled down in the second and didn’t stop until he walked off the mound after seven innings and 120 pitches. At one point, he retired 12 of 13 batters he faced. He struck out nine, including three straight in the second inning after issuing a leadoff walk. He erased a one-out double by Freeman in the sixth inning by inducing two groundouts. He pitched around four walks.
“I thanked him,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “I said, ‘We’re really beat up in the bullpen,’ and for him to give us seven really strong innings was a big lift to the ballclub.”
Like much of the season, the Nationals’ pitching staff held up its end of the bargain. But because of the offense, Gonzalez’s mistakes were magnified. The Nationals put their first two batters on base in each of the first three innings against Braves starter Julio Teheran but failed to score each time.
“As a group, we’re not aggressive early in the count for good pitches in the strike zone and then some of the young hitters go out of the strike zone and chase,” Johnson said. “It’s just maturity. The young guys need to mature as hitters in those situations.”
Werth snapped an 0-for-11 skid with runners in scoring position in the seventh inning by driving in Anthony Rendon with a one-out single off right-handed reliever David Carpenter. But the Nationals squandered a chance for more. Adam LaRoche came up next with Werth on first and Harper on third, but the fruitful opportunity ended with a rapid-fire sequence of LaRoche striking out and Werth getting thrown out at second trying to steal.
Another opportunity arose in the final inning. Against Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, Span smacked a one-out single. Rendon struck out three pitches. Up came Harper, at the heart of this weekend’s drama.
Harper fouled off three pitches, but couldn’t completely hold back on a low slider. He didn’t appear to swing all the way, but third base umpire Marvin Hudson rung him up. Harper was in disbelief but mostly kept his cool. As he walked toward the dugout, he said something toward Hudson.
“In that situation you can’t really call that especially when the home plate umpire says no [swing] about three times and doesn’t want to check” with the third base umpire, Harper said. “And they obviously check and they bang me.”
Johnson chalked Harper’s reaction up to team-wide frustration. Later, Harper was asked what was the Nationals’ remaining goal for the season. He said nothing about a playoff run.
“Just going to go out there and play our game,” he said. “Just to try to end strong and do the things we can do.”