And since the Nationals’ offense didn’t get started until the ninth and the Braves’ did just enough, Washington fell eight games back of Atlanta in the division race. The National League East was sort of a two-team race heading into this four-game series. Now it looks more like a foregone conclusion.
“Why?” Manager Dave Martinez shot back, without hesitation, when asked whether the Nationals’ backs are against the wall. “We got a lot of games. Our backs aren’t against the wall. We just have to keep playing baseball.”
Strasburg had won all three of his decisions against the Braves this season but ran into trouble right away. He gave up a leadoff single to Ronald Acuña Jr., Acuña stole second, and Ozzie Albies knocked him in with a bloop double over third base. Freddie Freeman came up next and, like Albies, lofted an opposite-field hit that left Strasburg shaking his head. Albies raced around to score. Acuña added another run in the fifth on a line-drive homer, and the Braves had what they needed.
Fried owned the plate with a mix of four-seam fastballs, sliders, sinkers and curves. He leaned on his sinker-slider combination and worked ahead in most counts, keeping the Nationals guessing and flailing at his off-speed pitches. The lone stain on his line was that hit to Rendon, hardly a stain at all, and he needed only 90 pitches to record 21 outs.
“Everything,” Trea Turner said of what made Fried so effective. “He was throwing all three, four of his pitches at all times.”
Victor Robles blasted a two-run homer in the ninth off Braves closer Mark Melancon, and Soto singled to bring the tying run to the plate. But Howie Kendrick soon grounded out to end it. The Nationals trailed by four runs going into that inning after Fernando Rodney allowed an inherited runner to score in the eighth. And Rodney was only in the game because Roenis Elías exited in pain.
Elías, one of the Nationals’ two left-handed relievers, was activated from the injured list Friday after missing close to a month with a right hamstring strain. His right leg appeared to buckle after he delivered a pitch to Brian McCann with two outs, and he immediately called for head athletic trainer Paul Lessard. He held his hamstring area while crouching behind the mound. It was the additional loss in Washington’s third defeat in four contests.
“He tweaked his hamstring,” Martinez said, adding that Elias probably would undergo an MRI exam. “We don’t know anything definitive. It just got tight on him. We’ll know more tomorrow. Same one.”
As good as the Nationals have been and for how far they have climbed the standings these past three months, two trends stretched into Thursday: The Braves have been even better, outdoing the Nationals’ summerlong surge, and Washington has hit a lag. The Nationals lost to the last-place Baltimore Orioles on Aug. 27. They nearly lost to the last-place Miami Marlins a few days later. They were outplayed by the New York Mets for three games this week, save for a couple of innings, and that let Atlanta build a yawning lead in the NL East. Then it only grew once Fried turned in his best start of the year.
So while this was billed as Washington’s chance to chase down the Braves and that’s still mathematically possible, the probability has dwindled since September began. The Braves have just kept winning and winning and winning some more. And the Nationals, for the first time in a long time, haven’t been able to keep pace.
“That wild-card game is not fun to play in,” Martinez said Thursday afternoon, about two hours before first pitch and about five hours before Kendrick made the final out. “So we’re here to win today, and we want to catch them, and we want to win the division.”
But all Thursday did was nudge the Nationals closer to that one-game playoff. Even if they take the next three games here and ultimately win the series, they still would be five behind the Braves with 20 left to play. The biggest question then, with Atlanta sprinting away with the division, is whether Washington can hold on to home-field advantage in the wild card. The Nationals are two games ahead of the Chicago Cubs in that race and play their next 12 games against division-leading clubs.
They have waded into the toughest stretch of their schedule at the season’s most critical point and are in the midst of as sharp priority shift. It’s not that the Nationals don’t want to make a push in the NL East. It’s more that the opportunity has all but passed.
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