The season is slipping away from the Washington Nationals and frustrations have reached a boiling point.
A last-ditch effort to pull closer in the NL East proved futile this week. The latest calamity was a 6-3 loss to the first-place Atlanta Braves on Wednesday night at Nationals Park.
Jason Heyward singled home the eventual game-winning run in the top of the eighth inning off reliever Ian Krol to help the Braves to both the win and a decisive three-game series sweep.
Atlanta won its 13th consecutive game and extended its division lead to 15 1/2 games over the defending division champions. Washington managed just six runs in the series and has now lost six of its last eight games.
And though several players and manager Davey Johnson refused to concede the division, their words rang hollow.
”Still a lot of games left, shoot,” Johnson said. ”Lot of ground to make up. But you never know what can happen in this game. If nothing else, get our pride back by playing better.”
The day began on a sour note for the Nationals before they even reached the stadium. The Cincinnati Reds, who currently hold the second NL wild-card spot, beat the Oakland A’s early Wednesday afternoon. The loss now leaves Washington nine games out of a playoff spot with just 48 to play.
”We got a month-and-a-half left,” slugger Bryce Harper said. ”And hopefully we can chase that wild card down.”
Even that looks unlikely now in a season where little has gone as expected. Johnson lamented that a back injury Wednesday afternoon will keep him out of Thursday’s team golf tournament hosted by the Lerner Family, Washington’s owners.
”That’s how this year’s going,” Johnson said.
Television cameras also caught Johnson and Harper in a heated argument when the manager went to remove his hobbled outfielder from the game. Harper has been fighting a sore left knee since May. Both men downplayed the confrontation and Harper stayed in the game.
For the second time in three days Justin Upton hit a tie-breaking home run in the late innings for the Braves. His seventh-inning blast off reliever Fernando Abad gave Atlanta a 3-2 lead.
It didn’t last, but Upton later followed Heyward’s tie-breaking RBI single in the eighth with a two-run double into the left-field corner to produce the final margin.
Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann lasted just four innings and 88 pitches, though he left with the game tied. A leadoff double by Heyward led to Freddie Freeman’s RBI single in the top of the first.
Zimmermann allowed the first batter of each inning to reach. He gave up just two runs, but seven hits and two walks knocked him from the game early.
”Early in the year I’d have runners on and make a good pitch and be able to get out of it,” said Zimmermann, whose ERA has risen over his last seven starts from 2.28 to 3.10. ”Right now it’s just not going my way.”
In the fourth inning, Jayson Werth hit a two-run homer to right field to tie the game 2-2. After Upton’s homer, an Ian Desmond RBI grounder tied the game at 3-3 in the bottom of the seventh.
No matter. The Braves scorched Washington’s bullpen in the eighth. Simmons hit a two-out double into the gap in left-center off reliever Ryan Mattheus (0-1), who then walked Joey Terdoslavich.
Krol entered to face Heyward, whose single to right scored Simmons. Upton’s double then put the game away. Two of the three runs in that inning were charged to Mattheus.
”We’re a good team,” Zimmermann said. ”We all know it. But it doesn’t look like it right now.”
NOTES: Washington RHP Tanner Roark made his major league debut and in two innings of relief allowed just one hit. He also started a double play with a diving catch on a bunt attempt in the sixth inning. . Washington has lost all six games at home to the Braves this season. . The Nationals have a day off on Thursday. . On Friday, Washington begins a three-game series at home against Philadelphia. . The Nationals start RHP Dan Haren (6-11, 5.14) against Phillies’ LHP John Lannan (3-4, 4.10), who pitched six years for Washington.