WASHINGTON -- Staring up at a 12 1/2-game division deficit, the Nationals entered Monday needing everything to go right in order to mount an unlikely comeback in the National League East race.
The schedule presented them with an opportunity, in the form of nine more games against the first-place Braves. But the Nationals wasted the first of those chances on Monday night in the opener of a three-game series, as Justin Upton's go-ahead solo home run in the eighth inning lifted Atlanta to a 3-2 victory.
It was a night of missed opportunities for the Nationals, who saw so many little things break against them. They hit line drives right at Braves fielders, while Atlanta manufactured a run despite barely getting the ball out of the infield. Stephen Strasburg authored another stellar performance on the mound but didn't hold a baserunner in a key spot. His offense put the leadoff man on base seven times and turned that into a run only once.
"I think collectively we all prepared as best we can, and sometimes you have really good at-bats and it doesn't work out in your favor," outfielder Scott Hairston said. "That's just the game of baseball. Usually it's rare in sports, when you do everything you can, you should be rewarded for it. Not in this game. So we just have to stay focused on our jobs and keep going. It's out of our control once we hit the ball. We can't do anything about it."
The Nationals fell to 3-8 against their division rival, including 0-4 at home. The Braves, with three hits apiece from Freddie Freeman and Upton, won their 11th straight in increasing their lead to 13 1/2 games. Washington dropped to seven behind the idle Reds for the second NL Wild Card spot.
"When you're in first place, you want to step on their necks, especially when we've got this big of a lead," Freeman said. "We can expand it a little bit more against them. I think we set the tone tonight."
The Braves struck the decisive blow in the eighth against Tyler Clippard (6-2), Washington's strongest reliever throughout the season. Upton got a high 3-2 changeup and walloped it over the left-field wall for his 20th home run, ending an eight-pitch battle. It was the second home run allowed by Clippard in his past three outings, following a 15-game scoreless streak.
"The timing of it couldn't be worse, you know?" Clippard said. "It's amazing. It's frustrating."
Even after that, the Nationals faced another opportunity. With All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel having worked in three straight games, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez turned to Jordan Walden to hold a 3-2 lead in the ninth. Walden came in with a 2.43 ERA, and he saved 32 games for the Angels two years ago, but he's no Kimbrel.
Like so many other innings, it started with promise, on an Anthony Rendon single. Manager Davey Johnson gave Denard Span the sign to bunt for a hit, but with the Braves' infielders crashing hard toward the plate, Span simply sacrificed Rendon to second. That brought up Hairston, who had doubled twice and walked, his first extra-base hits since the Nats acquired him from the Cubs on July 8.
A wild pitch moved Rendon to third, presenting Hairston with a golden opportunity for the tying RBI. But on a 2-0 count, he popped up a fastball behind the plate, and catcher Brian McCann pulled it in near the netting. Pinch-hitter Chad Tracy followed with a routine fly to left field, and the Nats had lost another heart-breaker.
"I think it was low for my liking, but in that situation you've got to be aggressive," Hairston said. "The guy's throwing 97 [mph], it's not that easy to lay off of it. Now, it's easier to lay off of it if it's high. The ball's coming in shin-high, usually that's a pitch you should be aggressive on."
It was the latest in a long line of unfulfilled chances for Washington, which struggled to break through against Braves left-hander Mike Minor. Facing the Nationals for the first time this season, Minor came in with a 1.53 ERA over his past five starts but said he had his "worst stuff" of the year. Still, he consistently worked out of trouble while allowing eight hits and three walks over six-plus innings.
He got some help from his defense in the first, when Adam LaRoche's double to the right-field wall scored Ian Desmond. It almost scored Wilson Ramos as well, but Jason Heyward threw an on-target relay to shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who fired a strike to nab Ramos at home.
Steve Lombardozzi, who got the start when Jayson Werth was scratched with a groin injury, hit into two inning-killing double plays. Starting in the second, the Nats put the leadoff man on base in four consecutive innings without scoring. They also stranded Hairston at second after a leadoff double in the seventh that chased Minor.
"Get runners out there, you've got to get them in," Desmond said. "That's the name of the game. You've got to score more than they do, and we didn't score very many tonight."
Washington also lined into its fair share of outs, including in a key spot in the sixth. With runners at first and third and one out, Rendon ripped a shot to left field that went for a game-tying sacrifice fly instead of a potential go-ahead extra-base hit.
On the other hand, the Braves tied the game in the third against Strasburg on two infield hits and Freeman's soft liner over first base that went for an RBI single.
Strasburg made his own bad luck in the fifth, after Upton's two-out single. With Strasburg paying no attention, Upton got a huge jump and stole second without a throw. Freeman then lined a 3-0 fastball past Strasburg's head and into center field for a go-ahead RBI single.
"I mean, we've worked with him and worked with him," Johnson said of Strasburg holding runners. "Too regular. He has the same pattern every time. He's very quick to the plate, but he is locked in his ways. We throw over there more than we want to because of that, and he doesn't even wait to do that. It's always right from the get-go. That's still a work in progress."
Strasburg gave up two runs on five hits over seven innings, walking one and striking out nine. He took a no-decision to remain at 5-9 this season.
His team was left with yet another defeat, falling back to four games under .500 and watching the odds grow longer.
"I think when you're in that position to help the team win and you don't do it, it's somewhat of a disappointment and we all feel the same way," Hairston said. "You have to seize the opportunity and more so than not, realistically, it doesn't happen to your liking, getting the job done.
"It hurts, but once you leave the ballpark today, we're just gonna have to prepare for tomorrow."