WASHINGTON (AP) - Discussing his Washington Nationals' latest loss, reliever Tyler Clippard was shaking a plastic water bottle in his right hand and shaking his head, too.
``We've got to turn this thing around,'' Clippard said. ``If it's going to happen, it's got to happen soon. ... Two months left, and we're 13 games back.''
Well, actually, 13 1/2 games back.
Clippard gave up a tiebreaking homer in the eighth inning to the first batter he faced Monday night, Justin Upton, and the Nationals failed to provide much run support for Stephen Strasburg once again, this time in a 3-2 loss to the NL East-leading Atlanta Braves.
A year after winning the division and topping the majors with 98 wins, the Nationals are one of baseball's biggest surprises, in a bad way: They are 54-58 and falling farther and farther behind the streaking Braves.
Atlanta stretched its winning streak to a season-high 11 games.
``I thought,'' Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said, ``that the division was going to be a lot closer.''
Reliever David Carpenter (3-0) earned the win by retiring all five batters he faced after Mike Minor went six-plus innings, giving up eight hits and three walks, yet allowing only two runs. With Braves closer Craig Kimbrel getting a night off after pitching in the previous three games, Jordan Walden earned his first save of the season, but not without some difficulty.
Walden gave up a leadoff single to Anthony Rendon, who went to second on Denard Span's sacrifice bunt - although Nationals manager Davey Johnson sent Span the signal to try to bunt for a hit there.
``When he gave it to me, it was kind of tough, because you know it's a bunt situation, and both sides (of the defense) are crashing. So, I mean, in hindsight, I'm like, `Why would he give me the base-hit bunt?' It's not surprising anybody,'' Span said.
Rendon took third with one out on Walden's wild pitch, giving Washington a terrific opportunity to tie the score.
But clutch hitting was the Nationals' biggest problem on this night - and all season, really - and Scott Hairston popped out to the catcher in foul territory, before pinch-hitter Chad Tracy flied out to left.
All part of Washington's 1-for-10 performance with runners in scoring position.
``Came up with nada,'' Johnson said.
Upton led off the eighth with his 20th homer, part of a 3-for-4 performance that included two runs scored and a stolen base.
He turned on a 3-2 changeup that Clippard described as ``not a good pitch.''
Clippard came on after Strasburg struck out nine in seven innings, allowing two runs and five hits.
``Terrible contact, and they somehow dump it over somebody's head,'' Strasburg said.
The last five times he's allowed two earned runs or fewer, Washington lost.
In every inning from the second through seventh, the Nationals put the leadoff batter on base, but had little to show for it.
The Braves, meanwhile, did a lot with a little. In the third, they followed two infield hits with Freeman's blooper on a 3-0 pitch.
``Lucky golf swing,'' Freeman called it.
In the fifth, Upton got a two-out single and came home on Freeman's single after stealing second, a recurring issue for Strasburg.
``He has the same pattern every time,'' Johnson lamented. ``He's very quick to the plate, but he is locked in his ways.''
So, too, are the Nationals, it seems.
NOTES: Nationals RF Jayson Werth originally was listed as hitting cleanup but was scratched from the starting lineup during batting practice because of a lingering groin injury. He pinch hit for Strasburg with a man on second in the seventh and struck out. ... Werth was selected as NL Player of the Month for July, after hitting .367 with seven homers and 22 RBIs. He led the league in RBIs and on-base percentage (.450). ... In Game 2 of the series Tuesday, LHP Gio Gonzalez (7-4, 3.57) pitches for Washington, while RHP Julio Teheran (8-5, 3.02) starts for Atlanta. ... Gonzalez was cleared Monday by Major League Baseball after its investigation of players linked in media reports to a clinic accused of distributing performance-enhancing drugs. Gonzalez, third in NL Cy Young Award voting last year, said Monday he has ``no lingering sense of animosity'' over being connected to the case.
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