First baseman Adam LaRoche, who did his part by hitting his 30th homer, noted that the Nationals were shut down after jumping out to a 4-0 lead heading into the bottom of the second, and that was true, too.
But there was one mistake Washington couldn't come to terms with after seeing its National League East lead over Atlanta fall to 6 1/2 games: the one they believed umpire Marvin Hudson made in calling Martin Prado safe at first base on a one-hop comebacker in the sixth inning, a moment that turned the tide of the game.
"It's all about momentum in ballgames," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who was ejected for the first time all season for arguing the call. "My pitcher is really throwing a great ballgame ... and we've got a lead, and the middle of the lineup is coming up. We don't need to give them a gift. That's what was concerning me. He gives me that inning, our bullpen's set up, we win the game."
Instead, Hudson ruled that Jackson's throw pulled LaRoche off the bag, putting Prado at first with nobody out. Replays appeared to show that LaRoche kept his left foot on the base. Four pitches later, Jason Heyward crushed a fastball from Jackson into the stands to tie the game at 4.
"Once he makes the call, at that point, it really doesn't matter. He's still on first base. The game has to continue," Jackson said. "I was just trying to come back and be aggressive. Just try to come at him, and he hit the ball out of the park. A pitch down the middle."
Washington's primary complaint about that play was that Hudson declined to ask for help making the call despite his position. And of course, it hurt even more when Heyward made sure the ruling would be a costly one.
"If that happens and we get a double play or something, nobody talks about it, it's no big deal," LaRoche said. "It's just a shame that they ended up scoring on it. It didn't help Edwin at all."
From there, Washington couldn't get anything going offensively. And the Nationals' bullpen hasn't faltered often this season, but the relief corps, specifically Mattheus, was at the center of their late-game unraveling Saturday.
Mattheus came in to start the eighth inning and allowed a leadoff single to Braves catcher David Ross. He retired Freddie Freeman then walked Dan Uggla and Chipper Jones to load the bases. Mattheus fired a 2-2 pitch that grazed Andrelton Simmons' jersey, allowing pinch-runner Jeff Baker to walk home and give the Braves the lead.
Mattheus said he felt fine warming up in the bullpen, but it didn't translate once he got into the game. Only nine of his 23 pitches went for strikes. Afterward, he was so concerned about how he threw that he asked catcher Jesus Flores if anything looked wrong mechanically.
"I just couldn't find the zone. I just didn't throw strikes," Mattheus said. "That's inexcusable. I didn't even give us a chance to win that game. I've got to go out and I've got to throw strikes. If I get beat throwing strikes, it's a little easier to swallow. I can't remember that happening any time in the past that I can remember. It's inexcusable."
After that, the four-run lead Washington built up early on was irrelevant, and the way Jackson pitched until the sixth inning was forgotten. Even LaRoche hitting the 30-homer mark was admittedly a "bittersweet" accomplishment when it came in a loss.
Now, instead of looking to clinch a playoff spot Sunday, the Nationals will try to avoid a sweep at the hands of their closest competitors. While Johnson is saying everything he can to maintain that every game is of the same importance at this point in the season, the Braves are gearing up to attempt a final run at the Nationals.
"It's important because our eyes are still on trying to get the division, because the Wild Card is so hard, so difficult with the one-game playoff," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "But at the very least, if we don't catch them because they've got a good club, you can hang your hats on -- we may meet them after the play-in game -- it's always good to play good with your opponent the last time you've seen them."