Soto’s two-run double in the eighth was a sign of life at SunTrust Park on Saturday night. The Braves, though, already had pulled away with back-to-back homers off Hunter Strickland in the sixth. The Nationals then lost their fourth in a row, and they can be swept here by the Braves on Sunday. They have picked the wrong time to go in the wrong direction.
“We just feel a little bit down,” Soto said. “But we still have a chance and not just this series. We got another series with them. We got to keep it going; we got a game tomorrow we got to win.”
The Nationals’ playoff picture has shifted since they arrived in Atlanta on Wednesday night. Atlanta, with a yawning 10-game lead over the Nationals, has all but taken the division. Only twisted mathematics can lend Washington hope in that race. So the Nationals can turn their full attention to the wild-card hunt — and just in time to see a group of teams gaining ground.
Players and coaches often vow never to look at the standings, as if doing so — or admitting to doing so — would violate some sacred code. Manager Dave Martinez insists he doesn’t know how far they are up in the wild card or back in the National League East or even how many games are left in the season. But if any of them peeked after Saturday’s loss — and let’s face it, a few must — this is what they would have seen: the Chicago Cubs trailing the Nationals (78-63) by just two for the top wild-card spot; the Arizona Diamondbacks sitting 1½ games behind the Cubs; and the Milwaukee Brewers, New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies all right behind the Diamondbacks.
It’s getting crowded. The Nationals’ cushion for a playoff spot, up to 7½ games last week, has dwindled to 3½ . Their cushion for home-field advantage in the wild-card game, should they play in it, has dwindled with the Cubs closing in. The Nationals have lost five of six for the first time since late May, when they sunk into a 19-31 hole, and it has put them in a precarious spot.
“We’re right there,” Martinez said after the loss, sounding a bit like he did when his club was stumbling through the spring. “We’re playing good baseball. Just stay in it.”
Austin Voth started in place of Joe Ross, who felt forearm pain during a recent bullpen session. Voth and Ross, along with Erick Fedde, have cycled through the rotation this summer. Voth was the fifth starter before he went to the injured list with shoulder tendinitis. That he reclaimed the role by necessity — and against the red-hot Braves — made it a difficult task before he even took the mound. Martinez wanted five innings or around 80 pitches, whichever came first. Voth gave him four innings, struck out six and exited with two big stains on his line.
One was a first-inning homer for Ozzie Albies, on a low-and-away fastball that got a little too much of the plate. The other was a fourth-inning homer for Josh Donaldson, his 36th of the season, after Voth fired a fastball down the middle. Donaldson feasts on mistakes, and this one traveled 443 feet into the left field seats.
“Even when they made good pitches they’re going to hit them out,” Voth said, later adding that he hit his spot against Albies and missed it on Donaldson’s solo shot. “It’s just tough.”
Aaron Barrett, making his comeback from Tommy John elbow surgery and a career-threatening broken arm, relieved Voth and pitched a scoreless fifth in his first major league appearance since 2015. Barrett couldn’t hide his emotions in the dugout afterward.
Washington got a run back when Cabrera crushed a solo homer off Julio Teherán in the fifth. It was the first time the Nationals scored against a Braves starter this series, after 17⅓ scoreless innings. Teherán soon stranded the tying run on second in the sixth, his final inning, and collected eight strikeouts. Then Strickland entered, and the scoreboard tilted deeper in the Braves’ favor.
Strickland gave up a leadoff single to Freddie Freeman and yielded those homers to Brian McCann and Matt Joyce. Strickland came into the game with a 2.70 ERA in 13⅓ innings for the Nationals. He left it with the scoreboard showing a four-run deficit.
A seventh-inning rally was crunched by Ryan Zimmerman grounding into a double play. That scored a run, in exchange for two outs, but that was all Washington could manage before Howie Kendrick hit a laser to center for the third out. Catcher Kurt Suzuki exited after the seventh with right elbow pain and was being evaluated by doctors after the game. Soto picked them up in the eighth, punching that two-run double to center, becoming the sixth player in history to reach 100 RBI at 20 years old or younger.
But the next big hit never arrived, and the ending looked painfully familiar.