Before Sunday’s series finale against the Nationals, Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons was talking with a reporter about losing the past two games. The Braves led Friday for five innings before blowing it in the sixth and getting rocked for six runs in the last two innings, including home runs off three different relievers.
Then on Saturday, they’d fought back from a 6-1 deficit, scoring five runs in the seventh and eighth to tie but losing on Bryce Harper’s two-run walkoff homer in the ninth.
“There’s a couple of good things to take away from both games even though we lost,” Simmons said. “But still, you’ve got to be able to close.”
They failed to close again Sunday, when the Braves chipped away at 3-0 first-inning deficit and took the lead in the seventh, only to see the Nationals score two in the eighth inning against rookie reliever Cody Martin for a 5-4 win that completed a series sweep at Nationals Park.
Braves starter Alex Wood was undermined by a missed fly ball in a three-run first inning. The left-hander allowed only one runner to reach second the rest of the way and left with a 4-3 lead after pitching 6 2/3 innings, an encouraging rebound from a pair of rocky outings.
Wood also went 3-for-3 an RBI, after coming in with a career batting line of 3-for-68 (.044) with 48 strikeouts.
“We came back and scratched, and Woody was a bulldog on the mound,” said manager Fredi Gonzalez, whose Braves have lost eight of their past 12 games, including five in a row against the Nationals. “He was in line to get the win. We’ve got to mix and match out of the bullpen and we just haven’t been able to do it.”
Their weary bullpen was even more strained due to the absence of closer Jason Grilli, who had back spasms and couldn’t pitch. Usual eighth-inning reliever Jim Johnson was held back to close in a potential save situation Sunday, but that evaporated soon after Martin gave up a single (Ian Desmond) and walk (Jayson Werth) to start the eighth.
That brought up Harper, whose game-ending homer Saturday – his sixth homer in a three-game span – was off Martin. This time, the rookie faced him with two on and nobody out, and most in a crowd of 31,938 were on their feet expecting to see their boy wonder do it again.
Martin coaxed a pop fly from Harper. But Ryan Zimmerman followed with a single up the middle to drive in the tying run. And with the crowd still abuzz, Wilson Ramos doubled to put the Nationals back in front.
Martin might be showing signs of fatigue. The rookie’s 16 relief appearances ranks among National League leaders, and he’s pitched 18 2/3 innings. Only one NL reliever had more innings before Sunday.
After posting a 1.54 ERA and .220 opponents’ average in his first 10 appearances, Martin has a 7.71 ERA and .370 OA in his past six appearances. He gave up three hits and a walk to the five batters he faced Sunday.
For Wood, Sunday marked a return to form after going 0-2 with a 7.71 ERA in his previous two starts. That included an April 29 loss to the Nationals in Atlanta, where he gave up six hits and five runs in five innings.
“The first inning, I thought I made a mistake or two, but I also thought they hit some good pitches,” Wood said. “They came out hot. But luckily I was able to respond. Some of the adjustments that (pitching coach) Roger (McDowell) and I made since the last start were working out pretty good.”
Wood was charged with three runs and eight hits in 6 2/3 innings, with one walk and seven strikeouts. All the runs scored in the first inning soon after after center fielder Cameron Maybin raced back for a Harper long fly and had it pop out of his glove as he leaped to make a catch attempt in front of the wall.
“I make that play nine out of 10 times,” Maybin said. “I should have just went up with one hand. Whenever you go up with two hands, you tend to block your view. I know they gave him a hit, great swing, but that’s why they put me out there. A routine play, and I’ve got to make it. No excuses. That’s all on me.”
Yunel Escobar, who had led off the inning with a groundball single, scored on Harper’s double. Zimmerman followed with another two-out double to drive in Harper, and Wilson Ramos’ groundball single to left pushed the lead to 3-0.
Wood retired the next nine batters, including five strikeouts.
“We catch a ball in center field, they don’t score three runs,” Gonzalez said. “The inning’s over. But it just continues. Woody was really, really good after that. He did terrific. That was a nice start for him to build on.”
After the first inning, the only other runner to advance to second base against Wood was former Brave Dan Uggla, who drew a one-out walk in the fifth inning and moved to second on Desmond’s infield single that caromed off Wood’s foot. Harper came up with two on and two out, but the showdown was averted when Simmons and Wood picked off Uggla, with Simmons pulling off the back-door move he’s done several times to unsuspecting runners.
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