published Monday, September 26th, 2011

Atlanta Braves hopes shrink

WASHINGTON -- Even after his Braves' latest feeble offensive display helped cut their once-hefty lead over the Cardinals in the NL wild-card race to one game, Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez insisted that his players are loose.

"They're fine," Gonzalez said.

Sure didn't look that way Sunday.

The four hitters at the top of Atlanta's lineup -- Michael Bourn, Martin Prado, Chipper Jones and Dan Uggla -- went a combined 0 for 16 with five strikeouts, and the Braves lost for the 10th time in 15 games, 3-0 to the Washington Nationals.

"This was a very brutal loss for us," said rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman, who produced one of Atlanta's four singles off Ross Detwiler (4-5) and three Nationals relievers.

The last 15 Braves batters made outs, seven on strikeouts. Atlanta has scored a total of one run in its past three defeats.

There were two key innings that stood out Sunday: In the third, the Braves loaded the bases with no outs; in the fifth, they had men on second and third with none out.

And they wound up with nothing to show for it, either time.

"Since it's crunch time, there's a little bit of added pressure there," Uggla said. "You need to get those runs in or more than likely it's going to come back to haunt you. ... Right now, these next three games, we've got to get it done."

That won't necessarily be easy for the Braves, who led the Cardinals by 10 1/2 games on Aug. 26.

Atlanta finishes the regular season with a three-game home series starting tonight against Cliff Lee and the NL East champion Philadelphia Phillies.

"Somehow," Freeman said, "you've got to put it behind you and do your best to come out and try to beat Cliff Lee tomorrow."

St. Louis, meanwhile, closes with three games at the Houston Astros, who have the majors' worst record. The Cardinals beat the Chicago Cubs 3-2 on Sunday, their 15th victory in 20 games.

"Every missed opportunity in September -- it's big," Gonzalez said.

His hitters failed to produce in the clutch Sunday.

The chance in the third came via David Ross' single and some serious wildness by Detwiler, who walked No. 8 hitter Jack Wilson and then opposing pitcher Mike Minor (5-3).

All told, Detwiler threw eight consecutive pitches that were called balls, going to a 3-0 count on leadoff hitter Bourn -- with nowhere to put him.

After finally putting one pitch over the plate for a called strike -- and drawing sarcastic cheers from the crowd of 37,638 at Nationals Park -- Detwiler got Bourn to fly out to left in foul territory. Bearing down some more, Detwiler got out of the inning unscathed: Prado hit a fly to right that wasn't deep enough for Ross to try to tag up and head for home, before Jones grounded out.

The bottom of the order gave the Braves another opportunity to score two innings later, but again they came away with nothing to show for it.

Ross led off with an infield single, Wilson singled to center, and Minor moved them up with a sacrifice bunt -- putting runners at second and third with one out. But Bourn lined out to second and Prado flied out.

Detwiler went six innings, allowing four hits and two walks while striking out four.

"He grew up a lot today," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said.

Henry Rodriguez replaced Detwiler in the seventh and was rather impressive, regularly reaching 100 or 101 mph and striking out all three batters he faced. He got pinch hitter Jason Heyward swinging at a 100 mph fastball, Ross on a two-strike foul bunt on a 101 mph offering, and Wilson looking at an 88 mph slider with a ton of movement.

Tyler Clippard pitched the eighth, and closer Drew Storen got the last three outs for his 42nd save in 47 chances.

"It makes us feel really good and the other teams really scared," Clippard said of the trio of relievers. "They don't want to face Henry throwing 100 and so on and so forth."

Wilson Ramos homered off Minor in the fourth, and Michael Morse hit the 29th homer of his breakout season -- a two-run shot -- off reliever Cristhian Martinez in the seventh. Morse got a curtain call afterward, the first of his career.

With nothing more at stake than a third-place finish, the Nationals have played well down the stretch, winning 12 of 15 games. That includes taking two of three from the struggling Braves.

"Any time you play teams in your division -- I don't care when it is, April, May, September -- there's a pride factor going on out there," Johnson said. "Especially in this homestead against Atlanta: They're playing for all the marbles."

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