"That one inning was a joke for them," Davey Johnson said, referring to Atlanta's three-hit third inning which saw the Braves collect three straight one-out singles on two balls that didn't leave infield and an RBI hit by Freddie Freeman that tied the game up at 1-1. "They could have had three base hits in the infield. [Ian Desmond] made a great play on the pitcher's ball," the Washington Nationals' manager continued, pointing to the weak grounder Mike Minor had sent out to toward short were Desmond made a barehand play. "But we hit balls on the nose pretty much better than we've been doing. Came up with nada."
The 70-year-old skipper let out a deep breath/sigh after that mouthful.
He'd just watched his Nationals once again struggle to support a strong outing by Stephen Strasburg and lose a close game to Atlanta that gave the Braves a 13.5 game lead over the defending division champions in the NL East.
"I thought we swung the bats better," Johnson said, acknowledging that it was at least better than a loss in which they didn't hit as a team. "But we didn't get any results. But Stras pitched a heck of a ballgame."
The Nationals' 25-year-old right-hander received just two runs of support and the Nats wasted several opportunities, so a close game was decided on a solo home run by Justin Upton in the eighth, which put the Braves ahead 3-2. Strasburg's night ended after 7.0 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 9 Ks, 112 pitches, 71 strikes, 10 groundouts and one flyout. After Scott Hairston doubled to start the seventh, Johnson brought Jayson Werth on to pinch hit.
Asked if he'd considered leaving Strasburg in to bunt, Johnson said it wasn't happening with the right-hander's pitch count, which soared to 60 after three innings tonight before a few efficient frames allowed him to go deeper than it looked like he would early in the game.
"I've got my best hitter available," Johnson said, "[Werth is] swinging a hot bat. I'm going to have him drive [Hairston] in or he can get the ball the other way."
"But [Strasburg] had already thrown 111, 112 pitches," the skipper explained, "I'm not going to let him throw 125 or something even though he had an extra day off."
With the game tied at 2-2, Werth K'd swinging. Bryce Harper lined sharply to right for what might have been a sac fly if Werth had advanced the runner and Ian Desmond grounded out on a swinging bunt that Brian McCann played.
A half inning later, Tyler Clippard gave up the game-winning home run on a full-count change to Justin Upton on the eighth pitch he threw Atlanta's slugger. It was a tough loss for the Nationals, but even harder in that it was one of the last nine games the Nats had left against the Braves in which they could have a direct impact on the divisional race.
"Morale is never very good after you lose," Johnson said after the Nats' 58th loss of the year. "It's always great when you do things that you're capable of and you win. That's why you try so hard to win."
Hard as Strasburg tried, and as strong an outing as he had, one sequence stood out in the loss. With the score tied a 1-1 in the Braves' fifth, Strasburg surrendered a two-out single by Justin Upton. With Freddie Freeman up, after Atlanta's first baseman singled with a runner in scoring position in the third to leave him 40 for 90 w/ RISP this season, the Nats' starter allowed Upton to steal second and put himself in scoring position without so much as a throw from Wilson Ramos, who had no chance.
Freeman then singled to center (41 for 91 w/ RISP) and the Braves took a 2-1 lead.
"I mean, we've worked with him and worked with him," Johnson said. "He has the same pattern every time. And, I mean he's very quick to the plate, but he is locked in his ways. We throw over there more than we want to, just 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."
The Nationals tied it up at 2-2 on an Anthony Rendon sac fly in the sixth, but then Upton took Clippard deep and the Braves came out on top. "That's baseball," Johnson said, "but boy... we needed that one. And Clipp. [Upton] was sitting all over his changeup. He didn't throw a good changeup. Upton crushed it."
Freeman "That’s everybody’s goal when you’re in first place.You want to step on their necks, especially when we’ve got this big of a lead."— David O'Brien (@ajcbraves) August 6, 2013