Nationals' party spoiled by wild Braves rally

Nationals' party spoiled by wild Braves rally

Nationals' party spoiled by wild Braves rally
WASHINGTON -- Davey Johnson hardly minced words.

Just minutes earlier, the Nationals skipper had watched his team go down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the 11th inning, falling in an 11-10 ballgame at the hands of the division-rival Braves. Washington blew the largest lead in franchise history, a nine-run advantage they held as late as the sixth inning.

But the offense that grew quiet and the bullpen that had been so reliable up until a night when it imploded in front of 34,228 fans at Nationals Park was not what came to his mind.

"Arguably the worst game I've ever managed in my life," Johnson said. "I've never lost a nine-run lead when it's my job to handle the pitching. It'll be hard for me to sleep. I had a worse night than the guys did."

With a glance at the box score, Johnson's statement speaks volumes. Starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg battled through early command issues into the sixth inning, when he finally hit a wall. By then, the Nats seemed to be running away with it, already up 9-0 in the opener of what could be a vitally important series for the National League East standings.

By the time the book was closed on Strasburg's night, he had given up four runs and the margin was sliced to five.

"He felt like he was missing, but I felt like he just wasn't going after them; he was wasting a lot of pitches," Johnson said. "He really doesn't know who he is at times. He doesn't trust his stuff."

Strasburg, who has lost to the Braves more (three times) than any other opponent and has a career 4.69 ERA against Atlanta, threw just 57 of his 103 pitches for strikes.

"I wasn't striking everybody out and wasn't going 1-2-3, but that usually never happens, anyways," said Strasburg, who was celebrating his 24th birthday Friday. "They're a good team. They were taking a lot of close pitches that they could have swung at but they didn't, so it's really out of my control. I was just trying to pound the strike zone and just missed a little bit tonight."

But it was then right-hander Drew Storen, pitching on consecutive days in his first two appearances of the year, and lefty Sean Burnett who would falter next.

The duo combined to allow three hits and three walks in the eighth inning alone, as Atlanta battled to cut the lead to 9-8.

And, suddenly, a blowout had become a save situation. In came Tyler Clippard, shaky already in two appearances this week. He was no better Friday, issuing a walk and a wild pitch, then hitting a batter before Michael Bourn laced a two-run, go-ahead triple off the scoreboard in right field in the ninth.

Over his last three outings, Clippard has blown two saves. He's allowed six hits and seven earned runs, spanning three total innings since Tuesday.

"I just haven't been real sharp lately," Clippard said. "It's kind of just something you go through in a season. That's kind of all I can say. It's probably my worst stretch I've had in a long time and something I've got to work through and figure out. Just hasn't been real good lately."

But that same offense that tagged Tommy Hanson for a season-worst eight earned runs in the first five innings -- Michael Morse and Ryan Zimmerman each connected on three-run bombs, Morse's traveling a Nationals Park-record 465 feet, according to ESPN's Hit Tracker -- bailed Clippard out in the ninth.

In one of the most unlikely of match-ups, infielder Danny Espinosa laced a solo home run over the left-center field wall, sticking Braves closer Craig Kimbrel with just his second blown save of the year.

"We've had trouble getting over the hump against these guys," Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones said. "When we go up 10-9 and then Kimbrel gives up a homer, you're thinking, 'My goodness, we still can't get over the hump.'"

But tied at 10 in the 11th, a Dan Uggla infield single off Tom Gorzelanny turned into a two-bagger when Zimmerman threw the ball away. Uggla came around to score on a bloop single, and the Braves would celebrate a victory.

"I was playing no doubles, but I got to it, I thought, pretty well, and I got a good grip on it and I just had to kind of turn and fire," Zimmerman said. "That was my only shot. I don't want to catch a ball like that and not even attempt to throw him out. That's the play and I would do it again if I had the same opportunity."

The agony of the defeat is compounded by the fact that the Nationals tore through six pitchers in a game that seemed all but over midway through. With a doubleheader looming Saturday, the club must find a way to recoup in a matter of hours. Their lead over the Braves in the NL East has been cut to 2 1/2 games.

"It hurts. It hurts bad," Clippard said. "We've got to win that game. Bottom line. And we usually do. Ninety-nine times out of 100, we win that game. It's a frustrating loss, big game, but nothing you can do about it."

Joey Nowak is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @joeynowak. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.