The Washington Nationals fell 3-2 to the Atlanta Braves Monday night in the first game of a must-win series against the NL East leaders.
With the loss, the Nats are now a crippling 13.5 games back with just 51 games remaining – and eight contests against Atlanta.
Things started out on the right track for Stephen Strasburg (ND, 5-9) who struck out Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann in order after Jason Heyward on a fielding error by first baseman Adam LaRoche.
In the bottom of the first, Ian Desmond walked and Wilson Ramos drew a two out single, allowing LaRoche to double home Desmond. On the play, Ramos attempted to come home to give the Nats a second run, but Heyward fired in to Andrelton Simmons, who tossed to McCann in time to nab Ramos.
In the top of the third, Heyward, Justin Upton and Freeman hit three straight singles to tie things up for Mike Minor (ND, 11-5) and the Braves.
Atlanta’s small ball strategy continued to pay off in the fifth when Justin Upton singled and stole second before coming home on a single by Freeman.
The Nats showed signs of life in the sixth, however, after Ryan Zimmerman and Ramos hit back-to-back singles, allowing Zimmerman to cross home plate on a sacrifice fly by Anthony Rendon.
Strasburg tossed a perfect seventh before calling it a day with a final line of 7.0 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 9 K and 71 of 112 pitches for strikes.
In the bottom of the inning, Scott Hairston led off with a single before reliever David Carpenter faced pinch-hitter Jayson Werth, who was scratched from the starting lineup with a groin injury.
Werth struck out chasing a 97 MPH fastball before Bryce Harper lined out and Desmond hit a soft grounder to end the inning.
The Nats’ luck came to a halt in the eighth, however, with the first batter reliever Tyler Clippard (L, 6-2) faced. After fighting off seven pitches, Justin Upton beared down on a 79 MPH changeup that hovered right in the danger zone. The result? Upton’s 20th home run of the season and a 3-2 lead for the Braves.
The solo shot was all it would take for Atlanta to emerge the victor yet again.
In the bottom of the ninth, the Nats looked positioned to rally off Jordan Walden. Anthony Rendon led off with a single and took second on a bunt by Denard Span. With Hairston batting, Walden threw one into the dirt, allowing Rendon to take third.
But, the comeback attempt ended there. Hairston popped out to McCann right behind the plate before pinch-hitter Chad Tracy flied out to end the game.
THE GOOD: Stephen Strasburg nearly emerged the loser of Monday night’s game, but he still provided the Nats with a strong performance.
Scott Hairston went 2-for-3 with two doubles and a walk and Adam LaRoche went 2-for-4 with a double and RBI.
THE BAD: It stands as the same old tune from way too many games this season, but it still holds true – the Nats failed to provide Strasburg with a decent amount of run support. As such, the Braves have now won their 11th straight and the Nats are a depressing 13.5 games out of first place in the NL East.
THE UGLY: 1-for-10 with RISP and seven left on base for the Washington Nationals.
THE STATS: 2 R, 9 H, 3 BB, 5 K, 2 GIDP (Lombardozzi), 1-for-10 with RISP, 7 LOB
NEXT GAME: Tuesday, 7:05 p.m. ET at Nationals Park – RHP Julio Teheran (8-5, 3.02) vs. LHP Gio Gonzalez (7-4, 3.57)