ATLANTA — The Washington Nationals were jolted awake by Ryan Zimmerman late Friday night, just when it seemed like they may sleepwalk their way to another loss to the Atlanta Braves at SunTrust Park.
But Zimmerman’s 433-foot homer only blunted the sting of defeat. The Nationals still fell, 4-3, despite the first baseman’s three-run blast in the top of the eighth inning. The offense did nothing for the first seven. It couldn’t plate the tying run in the ninth. The Nationals couldn’t beat Braves starter Dallas Keuchel, who pitched six scoreless, and soon fell nine games in back of Atlanta in the National League East.
They have just 22 games left in a regular season that’s found a valley after a sustained run of strong play, having lost four of five for the second time since late May. That they’re still 1½ games up for the top NL wild-card spot, and comfortably in a playoff spot, is the only consolation for getting knocked around here.
Patrick Corbin was as wild as he’s been all season, walking a season-high six in just five innings. But he allowed just two runs, only one of them earned, to give Washington a chance at flipping the scoreboard. The offense just fell a swing or two short. It didn’t help that Wander Suero gave up a two-run homer to Josh Donaldson in the seventh. It ended with Shane Greene recording a one-two-three save for the Braves.
After Washington lost the series opener and just narrowly avoided a shutout, Manager Dave Martinez shook up his lineup for the second game. He plugged Howie Kendrick into the second spot for the first time this season. He hit Victor Robles sixth, surrounded by slower runners, hoping the 22-year-old could provide a spark. And he played Zimmerman and Michael A. Taylor, two platoon players, to throw as many righties as possible at the left-handed Keuchel.
They loaded the bases in the first, with two singles and a walk, but Zimmerman bounced into a double play to end the inning. Then Keuchel settled in. He pounded the bottom of the zone with sinkers and sliders. He doesn’t throw hard, rarely touching 90 mph, and limits teams by inducing soft contact and early swings. The Nationals typically hit lefties better than most teams, but between Keuchel and Max Fried, who blanked them for seven innings Thursday, that trend didn’t make it to Atlanta.
And because the Nationals didn’t hit early, and couldn’t finish any rallies against Keuchel, Corbin was left with a rail-thin margin for error. His command was spotty from the start. He threw 26 pitches in the first, 24 more in the second, and wilted in the third by giving up a solo homer to Ozzie Albies. That came on a slider that hung right in the middle of the strike zone. Corbin was otherwise effective with that pitch, as he often is, and used it to get seven of his nine strikeouts.
But he only lasted five innings. He gave up an unearned run in the fourth, in a rally extended by an Anthony Rendon error, and exited after escaping a bases-loaded jam with his 107th pitch. That kept the Nationals within striking distance. The offense just wasn’t up for a push. The Nationals started the fifth with back-to-back singles, but Keuchel got the next three batters to sidestep trouble. Then they put runners on the corners in the sixth, after Robles singled with two outs, but Yan Gomes hit a slow roller to second that finished the threat.
That ended Keuchel’s outing after six innings. His six scoreless innings meant the Nationals have yet to score in 13 innings against Braves starters this series. The Braves stretched their lead in the seventh, when Donaldson hit a two-run homer off Suero, and the insurance was needed
The Zimmerman homer put a dent in the deficit — a significant dent — but that was it. It didn’t set up a dramatic comeback in the ninth. It was all the offense could offer and, for a second straight night, and it just wasn’t enough.