Braves lose, drop first home series since April

If this homestand -- and this month, really -- has been a slow, dull ache for the slipping Braves, they woke up to a sharp pang Wednesday afternoon.

A grand slam from the eighth-place hitter on the last-place team from the National League East was enough to level the Braves 4-2 on Wednesday.

They could not recover from one swing of the bat by the Nationals’ .132-hitting Justin Maxwell, who belted a grand slam off Mike Minor in the second inning for a 4-0 lead.

The Braves outhit Washington 10-5 and pitched eight shutout innings otherwise, but still dropped two out of three in the series. It was the Braves’ first home-series loss since April 20-22 and their second this season.

“We doubled them in hits. They got four runs on one swing,” manager Bobby Cox said. “Minor probably made two bad pitches in five innings, and one of them was a grand slam.”

The Braves are 6-9 in September, three games under .500 and in danger of falling three games behind the East-leading Phillies. Wednesday’s loss put the Braves 2 1/2 games behind the Phillies, pending the outcome of the game Wednesday night between Philadelphia and Florida.

This stretch hearkens back to an unpleasant time for the Braves in April, when that last home-series loss set the Braves on a course for a nine-game losing streak. Matt Diaz, who went 3-for-4 with two doubles Wednesday, thinks in a twisted way, comparisons to that April stretch can give the Braves consolation.

“April stunk, but ultimately it’s good for us,” Diaz said. “We know we can turn around an unbearable slide.”

Starting pitching is what got the Braves into this pennant race, and it’s what has failed them for the last week of this slide. Outside of Derek Lowe’s eight shutout innings against the Nationals on Monday, Braves starters are 0-4 with a 7.92 ERA on this homestand. Only twice in the seven-game homestand did a Braves starter make it longer than five innings: Lowe on Monday and Tommy Hanson with seven innings on Saturday.

Trouble started for Minor on a one-out double to Mike Morse in the second inning, followed by a single off the outstretched glove of Alex Gonzalez. After walking Alberto Gonzalez, Minor left a 1-0 fastball in the middle of the plate to Maxwell.

“It was a little up and more middle than in,” said Minor, who is 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA in his past three starts after going 3-0 with a 3.91 ERA in his first four major league starts. “It’s like I feel good, I feel good, and then it’s one inning. Something always happens, it seems like.”

He faced the minimum in his other four innings, but the Braves' offense couldn’t overcome the deficit. They went 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position. The Braves scored only six runs in three games against the Nationals.

“We offensively have got to produce enough to give our pitchers permission to have one bad inning,” Diaz said. “We can’t put it all on our pitchers to go out and be perfect every inning.”

The Braves dealt with their share of bad breaks Wednesday, such as when a hard-hit ball by David Ross deflected off pitcher John Lannan and into a double play. Then Martin Prado singled on a line drive that caught one of Jason Heyward’s spikes as he was running from first for the third out.

But the Braves got their own break when Nyjer Morgan lost an Eric Hinske pop-up to center for a double. Omar Infante tried to drag bunt for a single and was credited for sacrificing him to third with one out. But the Braves stranded him on a broken-bat line-drive out by Heyward and a Prado strikeout.

With 15 games left in the season and even a wild-card berth looking tenuous, the Braves head out on a nine-game trip Friday with more to set straight than a run of bad luck.

“It boils down to, if we play well, we deserve to go to the playoffs,” Ross said. “If you don’t play well, you don’t deserve to go.”