To prevent the Nationals from clinching and celebrating at Turner Field this week, the Braves must win the final two games of this series. But their motivation should have more to do with the fact that with just 12 games remaining, they are 4 1/2 games behind the Pirates in the battle for the NL's second Wild Card spot, with Milwaukee -- three games ahead to the Braves -- to also jump past in the race.
"We're not giving up," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "We're fighting until the end, and we're still not out of this thing."
Long after Freeman was ejected for his reaction to a called third strike, the Braves tallied a pair of ninth-inning runs to avoid being shut out for the fifth time in their past 15 games. Justin Upton plated Andrelton Simmons with a double off the recently demoted Rafael Soriano, who eventually had to hand the ball to newly appointed Nationals closer Drew Storen. Christian Bethancourt followed with an RBI single. But Storen then ended the game by getting B.J. Upton to ground out with the tying run on second base.
While Freeman and Gonzalez said they hoped the ninth-inning rally would provide some momentum going into Tuesday's game, Simmons viewed it in a more realistic light.
"It's a good sign, but we had the whole game to do it and we waited until the last minute," Simmons said. "We've got to do a better job of getting it done earlier in the game."
Working with no room for error, Braves starting pitcher Ervin Santana walked Wilson Ramos to open the third inning and then paid for the first hit he allowed -- a Denard Span two-out double that scored Ramos. Two innings later, Ramos hit a leadoff homer against Santana, who allowed just three hits and two runs during his six innings.
After getting two outs with nobody on in the seventh, Luis Avilan allowed Strasburg to drive in what proved to be the decisive run with a single up the middle. Avilan has struggled against right-handed hitters, but he was given a chance to pitch to switch-hitter Asdrubal Cabrera, who has hit .244 against lefties this season. Cabrera won the battle by notching a double ahead of Strasburg's single.
"The guys are battling," Gonzalez said. "They know what is in store. They know what is up against them. You like the effort. It's just that right now, if you miss an opportunity to score a run, it comes back and bites us, or you give up an extra run or an add-on run late in the game that comes back to haunt us."
Given that Strasburg had gone winless and posted a 4.98 ERA in his previous nine starts against Atlanta, there was reason to wonder if this would be one of those nights where the Braves' offense would show life, much like it did while beating the Nationals' right-hander last week in Washington.
But Strasburg was in total command as he scattered five hits over seven scoreless innings. When he encountered a potentially damaging situation, he simply added to the frustration of the Braves, who entered Monday having hit .193 (31-for-161) with runners in scoring position over the past 22 games.
The Braves were given a prime opportunity when an errant pickoff attempt moved Jason Heyward to third base with none out in the fifth inning. But Strasburg responded by sandwiching a Bethancourt groundout between strikeouts of Chris Johnson and B.J. Upton.
Simmons doubled with two outs in the sixth inning and then was left stranded at second base when Freeman looked at a called third strike to end the inning. Plate umpire Tim Timmons ejected Freeman after he slammed and broke his bat in front of the plate. This led to a brief argument from Gonzalez, who also was ejected.
"I thought it was a ball, and after looking at it, it was a ball," Freeman said. "I guess it was a little bit of frustration built up at a pivotal point of the game. That would have been first and second with Justin coming up down by two. That's just kind of the way things have been going. You get a bad call right there, and unfortunately, I let the frustration boil over."