Nats win 4-1 when Braves bullpen falters in 11th inning

A game that didn’t start until almost 11 p.m. because of rain, and didn’t end in nine innings in large part because of missed Braves scoring opportunities, concluded in 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., and Braves players were not pleased with the decision to start a game so late instead of postponing.

“From a players’ aspect, it was kind of shocking a little bit,” to start at 10:51 p.m., said first baseman Freddie Freeman, who had three hits and a walk. “It’s definitely tough to get hot, then sit down for four hours and try to get hot again. But it’s our job and we still went out there and gave it our all.”

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.

“That is what we got him for,” Gonzalez said of Russell, acquired from the Cubs in a July 31 trade. “The situation to get one left-hander out, to get (Bryce) Harper out, who hadn’t been particularly swinging the bat well this series.”

Harper was 2-for-2 with a walk previously against Russell, and drew a walk to load the bases with one out. He said he wasn’t surprised to be brought in to face one batter, a lefty.

“It’s my job. That’s why I’m here,” Russell said. “I’m supposed to get those guys out. Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way. I’m not used to really pitching at 2 in the morning, but it’s still something you’ve got to do no matter what. I don’t know, splits – I don’t really read too much into it. It just comes down to quality pitches.”

After walking Harper, Russell was replaced by Varvaro, who 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.

“Everybody goes through some stuff,” Gonzalez said of Varvaro’s slump. “He’s been pretty good for us. We’ll pick our spots and keep running him out there.”

Braves relievers are 0-3 with a 5.24 ERA in August, with 29 hits and 13 earned runs allowed in 22 1/3 innings.

“We lost with our best asset of our team,” Freeman said. “Our pitching staff is our best thing, and when you lose with them you can’t really get upset because they pick us up and carry us the whole year. So it’s bound to happen, and it will probably happen again. But as an offense we’ve got to do a better job of getting more than one run.”

The Braves are 8-4 against the Nationals, and need to win the rubber match Sunday to avoid falling to 5 1/2 games back.

“It’s tough, especially against a team we know we are trying to make a run on,” Harang said of Saturday’s loss. “To sit through that four-hour delay and not be able to pull it off — we have to forget about it and we have a game later tonight.”

Braves center fielder B.J. Upton said of the late start Saturday, “It kind of blows my mind. Especially when they could possibly give us an extra day to kind of build on (Friday’s series-opening win). I don’t think we ever saw that coming, for us to start a game at close to 11 o’clock and getting out of here at 3 o’clock (a.m.), that’s … I’ve never seen it.

“I haven’t been around the longest, but that’s definitely a first for me.”

Nationals played viewed the late start as more of a necessity, to try to get the game in rather than attempt to make it up as a doubleheader on getaway day Sunday, when the teams are set for an 8 p.m. nationally televised game on ESPN, or in the Nationals’ last visit to Atlanta in mid-September.

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. Upton grounded out to end the inning.

The Braves had another opportunity in the 10th against Tyler Clippard when Freeman drew a one-out walk. 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. 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.

"It's the major leagues," Gonzalez said of the decision by Braves officials to start so late. "There was a clearing behind (the storm). It's a tough situation for everybody. It really is. We came out of the shoot playing pretty good baseball. Let's start with that. Harang gave us a heck of an opportunity. It's the 11th inning and two in the morning, or whatever it was, you forget how well Harang pitched.

“We didn’t swing the bats particularly well. They didn’t either. I don’t think anything about the particular starting time. You’ve got to be ready in the major leagues to play. Sure we wanted to start at 7:05 put it’s Mother Nature.”

The extremely late start didn’t seem to 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 runner 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.

The Braves had a prime opportunity to score first 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 for third-most in the NL.

The failure to capitalize in the fifth 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, jumping on an 89-mph fastball after Harang fell behind 2-and-0.

Harang has allowed two or fewer earned runs 10 times in 13 home starts, including one or no earned runs five times.