After playing most of Wednesday’s game as if it were a must-whiff rather than must-win situation, the Braves staged a dramatic ninth-inning rally that sent a jolt of electricity and hope through Turner Field.
But it was squelched by one of of the more unusual game-ending plays anyone could remember in a 5-4 loss against the Florida Marlins, which left Matt Diaz feeling awful and the Braves’ postseason hopes decimated.
With the bases loaded, Diaz was thrown out trying to get back to third when a pitch in the dirt got away from Marlins catcher Ronny Paulino -- but not as far away as Diaz had momentarily thought.
“I pride myself on making the right decision,” said Diaz, who had come halfway down the baseline and stutter-stepped before retreating. “But right there I hesitated, and it cost us big time. I’ve never felt this bad about a play.”
As Diaz scrambled back toward the base, Paulino recovered the ball and rifled a throw to third baseman Wes Helms, who applied the tag for the final out. Diaz shouted into his helmet as he walked toward the dugout.
Braves players and fans were left stunned after a roller-coaster ride of a game that saw Florida’s Ricky Nolasco notch a franchise-record 16 strikeouts and the Braves fall to 3-1/2 games behind wild-card leader Colorado -- before the conclusion of the Rockies’ late game against Milwaukee -- with only four to play.
“It’s not fun for anybody,” said Braves ace Javier Vazquez (15-10), who had a four-start winning streak snapped on one of the few nights when he was outpitched. “We tried our best, and it didn’t happen. This is a tough [loss].”
The Braves scored four consecutive and unearned runs in the final innings -- two in the seventh, two in the ninth -- before falling short and absorbing consecutive losses for the first time in three weeks.
“We fought back and did what we could to win it, and it didn’t happen,” said Adam LaRoche, whose sixth-inning leadoff double ended a string of nine consecutive strikeouts by Nolasco, one short of Tom Seaver’s 39-year-old major league single-game record of 10 consecutive strikeouts.
“You can’t blame Matty,” LaRoche added. “He’s trying to be aggressive and sneak out a run whatever way we can. You hate to see that happen.”
The Braves already had scored two runs in the ninth on singles by Yunel Escobar and Omar Infante and gotten some help in the form of two Marlins errors.
Marlins reliever Brendan Donnelly replaced Leo Nunez with the bases loaded and Martin Prado batting, and his first pitch was in the dirt. It squirted away from Paulino, who initially turned the wrong way, which caused Diaz, more than a third of the way down the line, to hesitate and consider trying to score.
“I got a good jump, but then realized it wasn’t very far from the catcher,” Diaz said. “Once I realized that, I should have gone back to third.”
In the time it took for him to linger before retreating to third, Paulino recovered, picked up the ball and rifled a throw to Helms.
“I haven’t seen too many end like that -- and Matty’s our best base runner,” manager Bobby Cox said. “Nobody feels worse than he does about it. He was indecisive … he feels real bad about it.”
What a way to end a game. What a game to end (probably) the Braves’ hopes.
Nolasco (13-9) struck out the side in the third, fourth and fifth innings to come within one of Seaver’s record of 10 consecutive strikeouts in a 1970 New York Mets game against San Diego.
The Braves have won 10 in a row on the road, but lost 12 of 22 at home.
With only four games left, it would take a total collapse by the Rockies, coupled with a strong rebound by the Braves in a season-ending series against the lowly Washington Nationals that begins Thursday night at Turner Field.
Nolasco allowed four hits, two runs (both unearned) and two walks in 7-2/3 innings, and his 16 strikeouts tied Mets pitcher Sid Fernandez’s 1989 mark for most strikeouts against the Braves in a game since the team moved to Atlanta.
Vazquez had a four-start winning streak snapped and allowed five runs (three earned) and eight hits in six innings, with nine strikeouts and no walks.
He was 4-0 with an 0.84 ERA in the past four starts before Wednesday, but hasn’t won against the Marlins since 2003. He’s 0-3 with a 5.46 ERA in five starts against them this season, 15-7 with a 2.44 ERA against everyone else.