Even as Philadelphia reeled off the past five consecutive National League East titles and Washington finished behind Atlanta every season, the Braves struggled not only against the Phillies but also the Nationals.
Now the Nationals have replaced the Phillies atop the division standings, and the Braves have stumbled more than ever against the Nationals. Which is problematic, because it makes it tough to gain ground on a team ahead of you when you rarely beat said team.
The Nationals scored four runs in the first inning against Braves starter Tim Hudson and never trailed in an 8-4 win Sunday to clinch the series on another scorching afternoon at Turner Field.
“We fought,” said Braves center fielder Michael Bourn, whose error let in the fourth run of the first inning. “But it wasn’t enough fight.”
It seldom has been enough lately for the Braves against the Nationals, who’ve won eight of their past 10 against Atlanta including six of eight this season. The Braves lost two of three in the series to fall to third place, 4-1/2 games behind the Nationals and 1-1/2 games behind New York pending the outcome of the Mets’ Sunday night game against the Dodgers at Los Angeles.
The temperature soared to an all-time Atlanta record 106 degrees on Saturday and to 104 during Sunday’s game, but Hudson (6-4) said the heat “wasn’t too bad” and had nothing to do with his first-inning problems. He gave up three consecutive hits to start the game, including a leadoff double by Steve Lombardozzi and two-run double by Ryan Zimmerman that both came on 1-and-2 counts.
“I got ahead of some guys and have just got to make some better pitches with two strikes,” said Hudson, who lasted six innings and gave up eight hits and six runs (five earned). “I just missed over the plate, up in the zone. Just wasn’t very good.”
Zimmerman went 3-for-4 with four RBIs, including a mammoth solo homer in the fifth.
Freddie Freeman hit a three-run homer in the sixth off Nationals All-Star Gio Gonzalez to cut the lead to 6-4. But even on a day when Gonzalez left without getting an out in the sixth inning — only the fourth time in the left-hander’s 16 starts that he failed to work at least six innings – the Braves never were closer than two runs. They lost for the 45th time in 80 games against the Nationals since the beginning of the 2008 season.
“They’ve given us trouble for the last six or eight years, for whatever reason,” said Chipper Jones, whose RBI double in the third inning accounted for the Braves’ only scoring until Freeman’s homer. “I can put my finger on it a lot better this year and maybe last year than I could the previous four or five years, because [now] they obviously have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball.
“But it just seems like they’ve always hit our pitching, and it seems like their pitchers have always made pitches to get themselves out of trouble whenever we’ve threatened. So it’s just one of those trends that we have to turn around.”
The Braves are 3-3 on a season-long homestand that concludes with a four-game series beginning Monday night against the Chicago Cubs, the NL Central’s last-place team. After that, the Braves play three games at Philadelphia before the All-Star break begins.
The Braves wasted scoring opportunities in the seventh and eighth innings, then struggling reliever Jonny Venters was charged with two runs in the ninth as the Nationals regained a comfortable margin.
Venters hit Steve Lombardozzi with a pitch with one out, then walked Bryce Harper after getting ahead in the count 0-and-2 against the rookie. Zimmerman followed with an RBI single and Venters was replaced by Cristhian Martinez, who coaxed a grounder from Michael Morse but couldn’t prevent another run from scoring when Zimmerman slid and broke up the potential double-play.
Besides Freeman’s homer, the other offensive highlight for the Braves was a 14-pitch plate appearance by rookie Andrelton Simmons with two outs in the second inning. He fouled off nine Gonzalez pitches including eight in a row before drawing a walk.
David Ross followed with a single and Hudson walked to load the bases, but Bourn lined out to short to end the inning with the Braves still down 4-0. The Braves went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position, after going 2-for-10 in those situations in Friday’s 5-4 series-opening loss and 0-for-8 in Thursday’s 3-2 loss to Arizona.
“[Simmons] had an unbelievable at-bat,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “We got the bases loaded and don’t get anything there. But he [pitcher Gonzalez] got taxed. I think he had 100 and something pitches in five innings. That was one hell of an at-bat. He’s swinging the bat well. Jason Heyward’s swinging the bat well. Chipper had a big double and RBI. And Freeman with a three-run homer.
“We swung the bats extremely well, but we just got behind the eight-ball there right out of the chute.”