Bullpen woes doom Braves in 11-inning loss to Nats

A game that didn’t start until almost 11 p.m. because of rain, and didn’t end in nine innings in part because of missed Braves scoring opportunities, ultimately concluded in severely disappointing fashion when Atlanta’s bullpen faltered against the rival Nationals in the wee hours.

Relievers David Carpenter, James Russell and Anthony Varvaro all had problems in a three-run 11th inning that gave the Nationals a 4-1 win against the Braves and pushed their lead over Atlanta back to 4 ½ games in the National League East.

The Braves lost for the ninth time in 10 games, fell to 5-10 in extra-innings games, and wasted another strong performance by starting pitcher Aaron Harang. The game ended at 2:29 a.m.

The Nationals got consecutive singles from Anthony Rendon and Adam Laroche to start the 11th inning against Carpenter. After Justin Upton made a leaping catch of Ian Desmond’s line drive for the first out, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez brought in left-hander James Russell to face left-handed hitter Bryce Harper.

He made the move despite the fact that Russell has been far more effective against right-handed hitters than against lefties this season, limiting righties to a .113 average compared to .314 by lefties. Harper was 2-for-2 with a walk previously against Russell, and drew a walk to load the bases with one out. And that was all for Russell, who was replaced by the struggling Varvaro.

Varvaro had allowed three homers, a .389 opponents’ average and five earned runs in his past five appearances, including a home run Friday. His first pitch Saturday resulted in an RBI single to center field for Wilson Ramos, and Kevin Frandsen followed with a two-run double to the right-field corner for a 4-1 lead.

The Braves are 8-4 against the rival Nationals, and the team will play the rubber match in the series Sunday night in a national televised game on ESPN.

Emilio Bonifacio started a two-out rally attempt in the Braves’ ninth with a single against reliever Drew Storen, then stole second. With first base open the Nationals opted to intentionally walk pinch-hitter Ramiro Pena to face major league strikeout leader B.J. Upton, who had already struck out three times Saturday. Upton grounded out to end the inning.

The Braves had another opportunity in the 10th against Tyler Clippard when Freddie Freeman drew a one-out walk, to go with his three hits in regulation. Freeman was still at first when the inning ended after fly-outs to left by Justin Upton and Jason Heyward. It was Heyward’s sacrifice fly in the sixth inning, on his 25th birthday, that tied the score at 1-all.

Nine of the other 14 major league games Saturday had already been completed when the Braves and Nationals finally got started at 10:51 p.m., after a rain delay of three hours and 41 minutes. Even the West Coast games were in the fifth or sixth inning by the time the first pitch was thrown at Turner Field, and the Mets and Phillies were in the 11th inning.

But the extremely late start didn’t faze the eldest Brave, Harang. He did what he’s done all season, working out of trouble and giving his team a great opportunity to win a game.

Harang limited the Nationals to seven hits and one run in seven innings, with two walks and two strikeouts. And once again, he got no decision. He hasn’t won a game since July 10, but hasn’t lost since June 18.

The crafty veteran is 4-0 with a 2.55 ERA with a 2.55 ERA in his past nine starts, with a four-start winning streak that’s been followed by a five-start no-decision streak. Harang allowed two or fewer runs in four of those past five starts, and the Braves scored two or fewer runs while he was in each of them.

With the bases loaded and none out in the sixth inning, Heyward fell behind in the count 0-2, then worked it full before hitting a broken-bat fly ball deep enough to center field to score Tommy La Stella.

The Braves had loaded the bases on a walks by La Stella and Justin Upton bookending a Freeman single. Freeman went 3-for-4 with a double, and he’s batting a torrid .500 (24-for-48) against the Nationals this season with six doubles and four homers.

There were still two on with one out after Heyward’s sac fly, but Evan Gattis struck out and Chris Johnson was out on a comebacker to pitcher Tanner Roark for the third out, making the Braves 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position through six innings.

On their 0-8 road trip that ended Wednesday in Seattle, the Braves went 13-for-71 (.183) with runners in scoring position and scored three runs or fewer scored three runs or fewer in each of the last seven losses. They had a four-homer outburst early in Friday’s games and led 7-0 after five innings before hanging on for a 7-6 win that snapped their 0-9 skid in games decided by one run.

The Braves had a prime opportunity to score first Saturday when they started the fifth inning with consecutive singles by Johnson and Emilio Bonifacio. But when Harang tried to bunt them over, he instead bunted into a 1-5-4 double play.

On the scale of unusual occurences, that paled next to what happened to the Braves last week at San Diego, when the Braves grounded into 5-2-3 double plays in consecutive games while twice failing to score after loading the bases with none out.

The Braves were also hurt by a double-play grounder in the second inning, after Gattis’ leadoff single. Johnson followed by grounding into a double play for the 17th time, tied with Andrelton Simmons and two others for third-most in the National League.

The failure to capitalize in the fifth inning was magnified minutes later when Adam LaRoche led off the Nationals’ sixth with a long home run to the right-center bleachers for a 1-0 lead.

For updated write-thru version of this story with postgame quotes, go to MyAJC.com or use this link.