Washington – The Braves had to beat the Nationals Tuesday to avoid a series loss and conceivably a shot at the division title, and they had to go through Stephen Strasburg.
It was a tall order, and it’s only getting taller.
The Braves struck out 10 times in the first five innings against Strasburg and scored only once in six innings against the Nationals’ ace in a 4-1 loss, their second straight in this pivotal series. A three-run home run by part-time catcher Jesus Flores off Paul Maholm was the decisive blow, after the Braves elected to pitch to him with first base open and Strasburg on deck.
The Braves fell seven games behind the Nationals in the NL East, their largest deficit of the season, with only 39 games to play, including four more against NL West-leading San Francisco on this three-city trip.
“(You) never want to concede,” said Chipper Jones, who had said coming into the series the Braves might be forced to think in wild-card terms if they lost this series. “You want to hold out hope that you still have hope.”
The Nationals are 10-4 against the Braves this season after winning the past four against them at Nationals Park. The Braves have lost four straight overall, their longest losing streak since June 10-13 against the Yankees and Blue Jays.
This is exactly what the Braves didn’t want from this series. As fluky as a 13-inning loss was the night before, the Nationals compounded it behind a dominating performance from Strasburg.
The Nationals plan to shut him down before playoff time, so he had to relish a night like Tuesday pitching against the Braves. Strasburg was putting his 97 mph fastball on the corners, missing bats with a diving 91 mph change-up and commanding his curveball for strikes.
“He had that look in his eye early in the game,” said Jones, who watched from the dugout with sore knees but plans to return to the lineup Wednesday. “You knew he had his stuff and was getting his secondary pitches over the plate.”
Strasburg might not be as “coddled” as some might believe. He came back out to pitch after a 51-minute rain delay with two outs in the top of the third inning and was even nastier. He struck out Martin Prado on four pitches, to begin a stretch of six strikeouts in the next eight batters.
Maholm, who had to wait even longer over the rain delay, was determined to pitch deep into the game after the Braves bullpen had been taxed Monday night.
But just as Strasburg hit his stride by striking out the side in the fifth, Maholm gave up back-to-back hits to put runners second and third for Flores in the bottom of the fifth.
Flores was hitting .220 on the season but was 3-for-6 with two home runs in his career against Maholm. But rather than walk him to load the bases and try for a double play from Strasburg, who is a good-hitting pitcher with a .293 average, the Braves pitched to Flores.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez said afterward he thought about walking Flores, but he was also concerned about Jayson Werth, who was coming up behind Strasburg. Werth was 9-for-24 with three doubles and a home run against Maholm.
Flores ultimately padded his numbers against both Maholm and the Braves with a three-run home run over the left field wall. Flores has four home runs on the season and three of them came against the Braves. He is hitting .344 (11-for-32) against the Braves this season.
“It wasn’t even supposed to be a strike or anywhere closer to a strike,” Maholm said of the 1-0 pitch. “I was just trying to throw a cutter in and (then) go back down and away and I hung the pitch.”
Maholm gave up four runs in seven innings Tuesday, as many as he’d given up in 23 innings over his first three starts as a Brave. He has allowed eight runs in four starts combined, and all eight have scored on home runs. He’s given up five home runs total, including two Tuesday night. Ian Desmond hit a solo shot in the second inning.
“I made two bad pitches,” Maholm said. “Some night they’re fouled off and obviously tonight it cost us four runs.”