Braves shut out again, get swept in doubleheader

The Braves had such high hopes entering Tuesday’s doubleheader, which offered a chance to continue their Nationals Park winning streak and clinch the National League East title. If only.

Instead of clinching, the Braves left their fans clinched a little tighter in concern after losing both games to the resurgent Nationals and leaving the Braves’ magic number at four, pushing back any celebratory champagne until at least Friday’s series opener against the Cubs at Chicago.

And that’s only if the Braves can win Thursday’s finale against the Nationals, who’ve won 10 of their past 11 games after defeating the Braves 6-5 in Tuesday’s first game and 4-0 in the nightcap. The way the Nationals are playing, the Braves might have to wait a while to wrap up their first division title since 2005.

“We need to start playing better baseball, start swinging the bats,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “I like where we’re at, our position. But there’s still baseball games to be played, and we’ve just got to get back on a roll again.”

In the second game, Freddy Garcia (1-2) pitched well again in his second start for the Braves, allowing seven hits and one run in seven innings, with two walks and six strikeouts. But the skidding Braves offense mustered only three hits before adding a couple in the ninth inning while being shut out for the 15th time.

The Braves have lost nine of 13 games and hit below .200 during that period. They managed three hits in seven innings against rookie Tanner Roark (7-0) in the nightcap, which was also the seventh time in 13 games that they scored fewer than three runs.

“Right now we just need to win four games,” said the veteran Garcia, who has more playoff experience than any current Brave. “It’s hard. You need to be focused and concentrate on what you’re doing. A lot of guys get excited, but we’ve got to keep playing. We’ve got a lot of games to play. Hopefully we can win some.”

The Nationals are fighting to stay alive in the wild-card race, but Atlanta catcher Gerald Laird said the Braves, eight games ahead of Washington in the division standings with only 11 left in the season, also have plenty to play for. They’re trying to clinch and also secure home-field advantage for the NL playoffs, which goes to the league team with the best record.

After Craig Kimbrel blew a 5-3 lead in the ninth inning of the doubleheader opener, the Braves were only two games ahead of Pittsburgh and St. Louis for the NL’s best record entering Tuesday night’s games. The Braves are the only major league division leader with a losing record on the road (37-40).

“We really haven’t got to where we want to go yet,” Laird said. “We really don’t want to put ourselves in a hole. We’re lucky we built ourselves a large enough lead that we can have a little bit of a skid, but we’ve got to bring it every day, one game at a time, and get this thing over with so we can give some guys a rest. I think we ought to come out tomorrow and play a good game.”

As if they needed any more worries, the Braves saw reliever Jordan Walden give up three runs on four hits in the eighth inning of the second game, including a long homer by Ryan Zimmerman, the second homer Walden has allowed in three appearances since being sidelined three weeks with a groin injury.

“I don’t know, maybe just a case of him not pitching in a while,” Gonzalez said. “He’s healthy. Maybe we just need to keep running him out there and get him back on track, to be the Walden that we had for most of the year until the groin injury. The velocity’s still good. The secondary pitches are still there. I think maybe it’s just a little rust with his command.”

Denard Span’s fifth-inning single extended the Washington center fielder’s hitting streak 28 games, longest in majors since Dan Uggla’s 33-game streak in 2011 with the Braves. Span was also thrilled about the defending division champion Nats preventing the Braves from clinching during this series.

“Most definitely,” he said. “We definitely didn’t want to see that. We didn’t want to see them jumping around on our field. They can do that somewhere else, not here in Washington this year.”

After winning 16 of their past 20 against the Nationals and seven in a row at Nationals Park, the Braves ran into a Washington team finally playing as well as it’s talked most of the season.

“I think it sends a good message over to Atlanta that we’re not going anywhere,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. “We struggled a little bit early, but we’re certainly a capable ballclub and we’ve got the talent to compete with anybody.”

Instead of the Braves damaging their wild-card hopes, the Nats inflicted damage upon Atlanta’s aspirations for hold home-field advantage and delayed the East clinching.

“We had the opportunity to keep their heads below water obviously, and we didn’t finish it up,” Braves second baseman Elliot Johnson said. “There’s nothing you can do about it now, so we’ll come back and get this one tomorrow, and then we can go from there.

“It’s September, so all these games are going to feel like they matter more. But in the grand scheme of things, these games matter just as much as the ones in April. It’s just that it’s coming down to the crunch here. Everybody is ready to essentially clinch the division, but you’ve got to win games.”

Roark had faced the Braves twice this season as a reliever and now has allowed only four hits in 13 scoreless innings against them, with two walks and 12 strikeouts. The 26-year-old rookie right-hander improved to 3-0 with an 0.95 ERA in three starts (his other four wins came in nine relief appearances).

“Roark pitched well, you can’t take that away from him,” Gonzalez said. “But Freddy (Garcia) gave us every opportunity to win that ballgame. In a one-run game you feel like anything can happen. They added some runs there in the eighth inning. And even then against one of the top closers in the National League (Rafael Soriano) we end up getting runners on first and second with nobody out (in the ninth).

“We get an opportunity to put a number up; it’s a little different in 4-0 game than it would have been in a 1-0 or 2-0 game. But at least our club showed some fight there in the ninth inning.”

The Braves went 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position during the doubleheader, including 1-for-10 in the first game. They also made uncharacteristic errors and other defensive mistakes.

“A lot of guys in here really haven’t experienced (a playoff race) yet,” Laird said. “You can see it on their faces, trying to make things happen. It’s just one of those things, you’ve got to let it happen, go out there and play the game hard and let the game come to you.”