ATLANTA — With the chance to measure themselves against a division rival on the fast track toward the playoffs, the Washington Nationals instead absorbed an embarrassing 11-1 loss — the club’s most lopsided this season — to the Atlanta Braves on Friday night before 34,106 at Turner Field.
In their first game since the all-star break, circumstances turned drastically against the Nationals when they committed three errors in the first. Those miscues in part contributed to Atlanta forging a 4-1 lead, and with Livan Hernandez lifted after four unsteady innings, Washington was never able to recover.
“We looked like we were a little rusty out there,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “Some balls hit pretty hard and some tough hops out there. We didn’t play too good. We didn’t pitch too good.”
In matching a season high with five errors, the Nationals (46-47) lost for the fourth time in five games and dipped below .500 for the second time in a week. They also fell nine games behind the error-free Braves in the wild-card chase, although talk of the postseason at this stage may be premature, especially given Friday’s performance.
Still, Nationals players had spoken extensively going into the break about how they expected to be well over .500 by the end of the season. At least on this night, they learned just how much separation exists between them and the consistently competitive Braves (55-38), who earned the 10,000th win in franchise history, have the second-most wins in the National League and are vying with Philadelphia for the NL East title.
The Nationals mustered some early hits against Atlanta’s Tim Hudson, a promising development considering the right-hander had gone 11-3 with a 2.00 ERA against Washington in 20 starts entering Friday. Roger Bernadina led off the game with a single to center, moved to third on Danny Espinosa’s single and scored when Ryan Zimmerman grounded into a fielder’s choice for a 1-0 lead that didn’t last.
The Braves countered by batting around in the home half, with leadoff hitter Jordan Schafer reaching on Michael Morse’s fielding error at first. Morse then threw off-line to Hernandez covering the base, allowing Schafer to advance to second. Morse was charged with two errors on the play after having made one since 2006.
After Martin Prado flied to right, Jason Heyward walked and Freddie Freeman singled to right to score Schafer with the tying run. Freeman’s hit put runners at the corners, and Dan Uggla followed by doubling just inside the third base line to score Heyward.
One batter later, David Ross slapped a routine grounder at Ian Desmond, but the shortstop was unable to pick up the ball cleanly. Desmond’s 13th error this season permitted Freeman to score for a 3-1 lead and moved Uggla to third. Uggla came home shortly thereafter on Nate McLouth’s flare that dropped in shallow center in front of Bernadina. Ross, meantime, advanced to second.
McLouth’s hit prompted a conversation on the mound, but Hernandez then gave up a single to Alex Gonzalez, the next hitter. Left fielder Laynce Nix bailed out the Nationals at least in part by delivering a strike to catcher Wilson Ramos, who tagged Ross sliding into home plate for out No. 2. Washington finally escaped the inning when Hudson, who allowed one run with seven strikeouts over seven innings, popped out to Ramos in foul territory.
The Nationals’ fielding escapades continued in the second, and again Morse was the offending party. His third error allowed Heyward to reach first safely, although Morse collected Freeman’s grounder and tagged first to end the inning.
Even the normally reliable Zimmerman joined the fielding fiasco, committing an error when Uggla’s grounder went through his legs and into the outfield in the sixth inning.
“We don’t like to make excuses, but the surface out there, I don’t know, it’s a little tough,” Zimmerman said. “I’ll be the first to one to admit when I make an error, when I mess up, but to have a ball lined up and then have it go completely to the other side of your body in between your legs, you’ve just got to get in defense mode and try to block everything.”
Hernandez was out of the game by the time Zimmerman made his sixth error of the season, but even before then he hadn’t exactly been doing himself any favors on the mound. The 36-year-old right-hander gave up consecutive hits in the third, including an RBI single to McLouth, and a homer in the fourth to Prado, who was back in the lineup after missing 31 games with a staph infection.
Ross Detwiler replaced Hernandez, and the results were hardly encouraging. The spot starter converted to middle reliever allowed three runs in the sixth that featured four straight Atlanta hits. Detwiler lasted two innings before Todd Coffey came on in the seventh and gave up the final two runs.
“We lost. We got beat,” Desmond said. “We definitely didn’t play good defense, but to say we didn’t show up I think is a little bit rough, but move on. Got another game tomorrow.”