Until the seventh inning Friday, it seemed as if wasted scoring chances, slopping fielding and another early exit for starter Randall Delgado would all be part of the autopsy of the latest Braves loss to the nemesis Washington Nationals.
Things changed quickly in that seventh for the Braves and rookie Andrelton Simmons, who got redemption with a game-tying two-run homer that capped a four-run inning and erased the Nationals’ 4-0 lead.
But the momentum shift was quashed quickly when Michael Morse led off the eighth with a first-pitch homer off Braves reliever Chad Durbin, sending the Nationals toward a 5-4 win in the series opener at Turner Field.
“You want the games like this, because you want emotional games,” said Simmons, who flied out with two on to end the game. “You want to battle, and after you win you feel good about yourself, like you accomplished something. But after battling that much and losing, it hurts.”
Morse went 4-for-4 and scored three runs as the Nationals beat the Braves for the fifth time in six games this season. He hit the first pitch of the night from Durbin and drove it over the right-center fence for an opposite-field homer.
“He’s got a lot of juice going that way,” Durbin said. “It’s the first pitch and he’s 3-for-3 at that point, he’s going to try to be aggressive, try to get that fourth [hit], maybe try to leave the park. You don’t want to get behind [in the count] either, the way the guy is swinging.
“It was middle-middle, probably middle-away just a little bit. Might want to make a little better pitch, but then again, until they hit it out or hit one in the gap it’s not all that bad [a pitch].”
The Braves fell to 4-1/2 games behind Washington and a half-game behind second-place New York pending the outcome of the Mets’ late game at Los Angeles. The Braves are 18-28 against the Nationals since the final week of the 2009 season, and have scored just 18 runs in their past eight games (1-7) against them going back to last season.
“I feel like we’re on the same level,” Simmons said. “Just a couple of bad breaks. I mean, the guys are hitting the ball well. Pitching has been good; we’ve had some ups and downs, but we know what they’re capable of. Defense can be good; we struggled a bit tonight. It’s just a matter of being consistent, and we’ll get these [next] two games.”
It was 101 degrees for the first pitch Friday night, and the temperature is expected to be even higher for afternoon games Saturday and Sunday against the Nationals. The Braves’ struggling Mike Minor will face Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg on Saturday.
After coming back to tie, then falling behind again on the Morse homer, the Braves had another chance in the ninth after Freddie Freeman’s leadoff double against closer Tyler Clippard.
The Braves didn’t try to bunt him over, and pinch-hitter Eric Hinske flied out to center not deep enough to advance the runner. Martin Prado then drew a four-pitch walk before Michael Bourn and Simmons flied out to end the game with Freeman still at second.
Gonzalez was asked if his limited bench prevented him from doing anything other than having Hinske swing away in the ninth.
“You could do a couple different things if you want to, but you feel like with ‘Ski at the plate being a left-handed hitter, that he’s going to get a pitch that he can at least hit to the right side,” Gonzalez said. “It was a change-up down and away, good pitch by Clippard and ‘Ski popped it up to the center fielder.”
Delgado lasted four innings and was charged with eight hits and four runs (two earned). He threw 90 pitches, plenty coming during the ragged two-error third inning.
Sloppy defense can be dispiriting, particularly early in games. The Braves haven’t had many such innings lately, but the third certainly was one.
After the Nationals took a 1-0 lead in the second on three hits including a two-out RBI single by pitcher Ross Detwiler, Delgado retired the first two batters in the third. Then things got ugly.
Adam LaRoche reached on an error by second baseman Jack Wilson, in his first start this season after Gonzalez decided to have slumping Dan Uggla finally take a night off.
Morse followed with a grounder that skipped past third baseman Chipper Jones and was initially ruled an error, and Simmons made a throwing error on the same play when he tried to catch LaRoche off-guard at second base.
Ian Desmond singled to drive in both runners for a 3-0 lead. The Jones error was later changed to a hit, but both runs in the inning were unearned because of the two-out Wilson error that started the mess.
“It just put [Delgado] in a hole,” Gonzalez said. “That inning maybe works a little different, he gets that next guy, gets a 1-2-3 inning, he may be able to breathe a little bit and go five or six. But we put him behind the 8-ball there in that inning….
“I think [Simmons' error] was definitely a youthful error. He got excited and tried to create something with his arm, which is a very good arm. And Willy… you play this game long enough you’re going to misplay a groundball or throw a ball away.”
Aside from the homer it was a rough night Simmons, who also grounded out with runners on the corners to end the third inning and flied out with the bases loaded to end the fifth as the Braves continued their struggles with runners in scoring position.
“We put ourselves in a hole early,” Simmons said. “We made a couple of errors and we had a couple of opportunities to score runs and we didn’t. I left, like, eight people on base, or 10, I don’t even know. I mean, we had our chances. We definitely had our chances. They got a lot of hits but we stayed in the game. We just didn’t capitalize.”
Of his throwing error, he said, “I saw two balls go off of gloves, at second base [Wilson’s error] and go off of Chipper Jones. I was trying to back-pick LaRoche at second. I was too aggressive. Just a little immature of me. I’ve got to be better than that.”
After going 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position in Thursday’s 3-2 loss to Arizona, they were 2-for-10 Friday including 1-for-6 through the first five innings as they fell behind 4-0. The Nationals’ fourth run came on a Jesus Flores homer off Delgado in the fourth.
The Braves’ RISP woes cropped up again after Matt Diaz led off the fifth with a double. Freeman followed with a fly out and Wilson grounded out before pinch-hitter Juan Francisco was hit by a pitch.
Bourn hit a slow grounder between home plate and the mound, and his speed and hustle forced Detwiler to rush as he tried to field it. He dropped the ball for an error that loaded the bases. With the potential tying run at the plate, Simmons flied out.
The Braves finally broke through in the seventh, after Freeman was hit by a pitch with one out. Wilson followed with a bunt single and Prado’s pinch-hit single drove in the Braves’ first run.
Bourn followed with a sacrifice fly to cut the lead to 4-2, and Simmons homered on a 1-2 pitch from the lefty Detwiler, clearing the left-field fence for his third home run and 12th and 13th RBIs in 24 games since the rookie was brought to the majors from Double-A Mississippi.
Delgado got no decision to end a three-start losing streak, though it wasn’t the kind of performance the Braves hoped to see from one of their two inconsistent young starters — Minor is the other — at least one of whom could lose his spot before much longer. Delgado is 2-4 with a 5.26 ERA in his past eight games, and was coming off the briefest start of his career, 1-1/3 innings (six hits, four runs) on Sunday at Boston.
“Delgado didn’t pitch particularly well [Friday], but I thought that third inning he goes out after laboring through the first couple innings with a high pitch count,” Gonzalez said. “He gets the first two guys, quick outs, and then we didn’t help him much after that. We made some mistakes behind him and got his pitch count up to 90 pitches for four innings.
“The good thing is we battled back and made it a hell of a game. And I think it’s going to be this way against these guys for the next 12, 13 games that we play them.”