Miller hammered early as Nationals beat Braves again

It’s been the best half-season of Shelby Miller’s career, but you wouldn’t believe that if you only saw his first and last starts of June.

The month ended much as it started for Miller, who allowed eight hits and season-high five runs in five innings Tuesday, four of those runs coming in the first inning of a 6-1 loss to the Washington Nationals in a series opener at Turner Field.

The loss extended Miller’s winless streak to eight games and extended the Braves’ losing streak against the Nationals to nine games, dropping third-place Atlanta to seven games behind the surging National League East leaders.

Four runs against Miller (5-4) were earned, matching the season-high four earned runs he allowed in 4 1/3 innings of a June 2 loss at Arizona, when he gave up three runs in the second inning after being staked to a 1-0 lead.

He’s 0-3 with a 3.16 ERA in his past eight starts, and the Braves failed to score while Miller was in half of those games. They scored one run while he was in two of the others.

This time, Miller put the Braves in a most difficult spot before they even came to bat. He gave up four hits and four runs before recording his third out, including a two-run, two-out homer by Clint Robinson on a full-count curveball.

“I just kind of hung the curveball,” Miller said. “Next thing you know it’s four runs. Put our team in a hole there.”

Miller labored through 103 pitches (66 strikes) in five innings, and had three walks with a season-high 10 strikeouts.

“They squared up some balls early in the game and then he just got himself in trouble the rest of the game,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “It wasn’t a normal Shelby Miller outing, and shoot, he’s allowed to have that every once in a while. So now we go on to his next start.”

The Braves have mustered just 11 runs during a 1-6 skid, including three combined runs during four losses to the Nationals. Jordan Zimmermann (6-5) limited them to six hits in 7 2/3 scoreless innings, after allowing six hits in eight scoreless innings of an 11-inning, 2-1 Nationals win against them last week.

The only real highlight for the Braves Tuesday was three scoreless innings of relief from Jake Brigham in his major league debut after nine seasons in the minor leagues. He gave up one hit and one walk with four strikeouts.

The shutout was averted when Juan Uribe homered to start the ninth against Nationals reliever David Carpenter, who, as a Braves reliever in 2013, gave up a division series-clinching two-run homer to Uribe and the Dodgers.

Zimmermann is 4-1 with a 1.99 ERA in seven starts against the Braves since the beginning of the 2013 season. The only runner they advanced to second base in the first seven innings Tuesday was A.J. Pierzynski on a leadoff double in the second inning. He was still there when the inning ended.

Right now the punchless Braves are easy prey for pitchers: They’ve totaled 22 runs in 11 games since first baseman Freddie Freeman left the lineup with a wrist injury, expected to keep him on the disabled list until just before or after the July 13-16 All-Star break. In their last 18 games with Freeman in the lineup, the Braves averaged more than 5.3 runs.

“You look at some of the matchups we’ve faced — it’s been pretty darn good,” Gonzalez said of the pitching the Braves have faced recently. “But that (Freeman) is a presence that we’re missing, and guess what? We’re going to miss it for a little while longer, so we’ve got to figure out how to score some runs.”

Against the Nationals, the Braves have lost 16 of 21 dating to mid-June 2014, including nine in a row since winning the first game this season between the teams.

Miller entered with a 1.94 ERA and .200 opponents’ average, third-best among NL starters in both categories. Opponents had batted .065 (3-for-46) against him in the first inning before Tuesday, when he allowed consecutive hits by Denard Span and Danny Espinosa to start the game, Espinosa’s a double to the gap for a 1-0 lead.

Two batters later, Wilson Ramos hit a two-out RBI single, and Robinson followed with his third homer.

“If I could take it back I wouldn’t have thrown Robinson a curveball,” Miller said. “That that did him a huge favor, the hanging curveball inside. I probably would have just stuck with something else that I’ve been throwing a little better. But it’s a pitch that I decided to throw and just left it up. It just wasn’t a good pitch at all.”

Miller allowed more hits (four) than in the opening inning of his first 15 starts combined. All the first-inning runs were earned, only the third time all season he allowed more than two earned runs in a game, much less one inning.

“It puts us in a pretty big hole,” he said. “You’re down 4-0 and you’re facing the Nationals, and a team that’s been throwing pretty good not only against us but in general. Just kind of a bad inning to happen right there and especially the way Jordan Zimmerman went out there and threw. It’s hard to come back from and it was obviously a tough inning but one that we’ll put past and we’ll move on from that.”

Before Tuesday, Miller was 2-0 with a 0.85 ERA in five career starts against the Nats, including no decision last week when he and Zimmermann matched up and Miller allowed three hits and one run in seven innings.

The Nationals added an unearned run in the third inning after an errant toss by catcher Pierzynski to allow Espinosa to escape a rundown between third and home and score on the play.