Braves rally to tie, but Harper beats them with walkoff homer

Julio Teheran had another rough day, but the Braves rallied from deficits of 3-0 after four innings and 6-1 after six innings, and they had even managed to keep surging Nationals slugger Bryce Harper in the ballpark.

Until the ninth inning.

They got burned again by the hottest hitter in baseball, as Harper hit a two-run walkoff homer against rookie reliever Cody Martin with one out in the ninth for an 8-6 win against the Braves at Nationals Park Saturday.

It was the sixth homer for Harper in three games and the third in the first two games of the series, and it came on a 1-0 slider that was below his knees.

“He’s the hottest player in the world right now,” Martin said. “He’s putting good swings on everything, seeing the ball well. His balance is good; you can’t really do any one thing that’s going to get him out. I think you’ve just got to keep mixing it up, and that just wasn’t the right pitch today, I guess.”

But replays showed it was not a bad pitch — against just about anyone else except Harper on this home-run tear.

“It was a breaking ball, I thought (catcher Christian) Bethancourt was almost going to pick it in the dirt.” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “But when a guy is going that good, that hot, you’re almost going to have to bounce it there — and maybe even then he could hit it out of the ballpark.”

If the Braves had taken a lead, closer Jason Grilli wouldn’t have pitched. When a reporter asked about Grilli not being visible in the bullpen during the eighth and ninth innings, Gonzalez said he was “unavailable” to pitch Saturday. He wouldn’t elaborate other than to say he hoped it was only a minor issue to keep him out a day or two.

The Braves had largely silenced a sellout crowd of 39,193 when Bethancourt hit a two-out, two-run double to cap a three-run eighth inning and tie the score, 6-6. This after they scored two runs in the seventh on Pedro Ciriaco’s pinch-hit double that chased starter Doug Fister, who didn’t allow a hit or walk in the first four innings.

“We got back in the game late,” Bethancourt said. “That was nice to see from the guys. We’ve been battling the whole season, and we’re going to keep battling until the last day of the season.”

The Nationals faithful got excited again after Jose Lobaton’s leadoff single in the eighth, but pinch-runner Michael Taylor tried to score from second on Dan Uggla’s pinch-hit single and was thrown out at the plate by left fielder Kelly Johnson, with Bethancourt making a nice catch and tag that showed the rookie’s athleticism.

But after Yunel Escobar’s leadoff single in the ninth, the crowd was buzzing again. And though Martin struck out Jayson Werth to quiet things a bit, two pitches later Harper sent an oh-no-he-did-it-again jolt through the ballpark with his homer to center field.

“He ain’t missing too many pitches,” Gonzalez said. “Even pretty darn good pitches. He’s swinging it really well right now. Good for them, and bad for us.”

Also bad for the Braves: Teheran, who was alarmingly hittable again, giving up 10 hits, six runs and three walks in six innings. That included a two-run homer by backup catcher Lobaton in the second inning – his second off Teheran this season – and a three-run homer by Ryan Zimmerman in the fifth.

The bullpen that’s been so leaky lately was effective in the seventh and eighth innings to give the Braves a chance to fight back and make it a game.

“Unbelievable fight, especially in the eighth inning,” Gonzalez said. “We had a lot of great at-bats in the eighth inning. (Alberto) Callaspo, he battled and battled. Bethancourt, who hasn’t really been swinging a hot bat, he ties the ballgame with a double. Really proud of our offense. You know what, I’m really proud of our club, that we go out and our starter gives up six runs, and we came back.

“Our bullpen gave us a chance to win the ballgame, and we didn’t, but I’m really proud of the way we battled back.”

When Gonzalez said before Saturday’s game that he was more worried about Teheran facing Lobaton than scorching-hot Harper, he wasn’t joking. Lobaton, a seldom-used backup, was a mere 4-for-19 with 11 strikeouts in six games this season before Saturday, but his three-hit game against the Braves on April 28 included two hits and a homer off Teheran.

He had two more hits including a two-run homer against Teheran Saturday, making Lobaton 7-for-13 with two homers in his career against the Colombian right-hander.

The Nationals seemed poised for a second straight blowout win over the Braves after pushing the lead to 6-1 on Zimmerman’s homer in the fifth, which was initially ruled a double but was overturned after video review.

But the Braves’ offense awakened in the seventh, when they got three consecutive two-out hits beginning with a Bethancourt single. Cameron Maybin and Ciriaco followed with doubles, and Fister had given up two runs and three hits in a span of three batters.

Maybin also had a two-out double in the fifth to score Callaspo, who had singled to start the inning.

Sixteen of the Nationals’ 17 runs in the series have scored on eight homers, and two given up by Teheran on Saturday continued his troubling trends.

Teheran is 1-1 with a 6.48 ERA in his past five starts, allowing 33 hits, eight homers and 22 runs (18 earned) in 26 innings, with 12 walks and 25 strikeouts. His overall ERA climbed to 4.74, and he has a 1-1 record and 7.08 ERA in four road starts.

“It was a tough outing for him,” Bethancourt said. “I mean, he made some really good pitches. He was getting the ball down, he was pounding the zone with his slider. They were just working in the zone. They’ve been hitting the ball really hard. Basically we couldn’t do anything about it, we’ve just got to keep executing pitches and stay positive.

“We can’t give up; it’s too early in the season. We’ll have a chance to get back on track.”