Any other time this season, under any other circumstance, the Nationals would have been perfectly satisfied to take two of three games from the Braves.
Not right now. Not under these circumstances.
"It's just not enough," manager Davey Johnson said. "We just can't afford to lose. It's that simple."
The Nationals' 5-2 loss to Atlanta on Wednesday night didn't completely kill their chances of a miraculous, late-season charge into the playoffs, but it did make the challenge all the more daunting now.
Especially after the Reds won a 13-inning thriller against the Astros early Thursday morning, leaving the Nationals 5 1/2 games back in the NL Wild Card race with only 10 to play. Merely holding ground for another day isn't good enough at this late stage. They certainly can't afford to lose ground.
"It gets harder, yeah," said first baseman Adam LaRoche, keeping one eye on a clubhouse TV showing the game in Houston. "That's why we've got the Reds game on now. Again, it's tough counting on another team to melt down for you, but that's the position we're in."
The Nationals entered the week having beaten the Braves only four times in 16 tries this season, a large reason for the 10 games that separated the two division rivals in the standings when this series began. But then the Nats won both ends of Tuesday's day-night doubleheader and suddenly took the field Wednesday night with a chance to sweep the series and continue their torrid September charge.
They put themselves in position to do it, taking a 2-0 lead during a wild bottom of the fifth in which Jayson Werth drew a bases-loaded walk on a borderline inside pitch called a ball by C.B. Bucknor, ultimately leading to the ejections of both Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez and left-hander Alex Wood.
"That's C.B.," Johnson said. "He's got a little different strike zone."
Given that 2-run lead, Ross Ohlendorf took the mound for the top of the sixth, hoping to finish off a dominating start in which he faced the minimum 15 batters through five innings. But the veteran right-hander, as he's done on several occasions this year, crumbled late.
Ohlendorf faced six batters in the sixth. He served up a homer to the first (Dan Uggla), committed an egregious throwing error on the second, nearly served up a 2-run homer to the third and then did serve up a 2-run homer to the fifth (Justin Upton).
"Just made a bad pitch to Upton, and he did a good job hitting it," Ohlendorf said. "I felt strong the whole time. I felt like that's about as good as I've pitched. It's just really disappointing the way it turned out."
Thrust into an emergency starter's role because of injuries, Ohlendorf has both dazzled and confounded the Nationals. He has been brilliant at times, especially early in starts, boasting a 1.93 ERA in innings 1-4. But he appears to hit a wall after that, with an ERA that skyrockets to 7.84 in innings 5-7.
Ohlendorf insists his arm feels fine as he gets deeper into games, that he doesn't run out of gas. The results, though, suggest something changes for him the more innings he pitches on a given night.
"He was still throwing pretty good, still throwing 93-94, but he just didn't locate the pitch to Upton," Johnson said. "Got the ball up. Cool night, still feeling pretty good. Even when he came in, I told him that was it. He was kind of questioning me. So I don't think it was one of those cases where he ran completely out of gas."
The Nationals still had a chance to rally late, but the one-run deficit became two runs and then three after the Braves plated a couple of insurance runs. Despite a dramatic, bottom-of-the-ninth rally off Craig Kimbrel Tuesday afternoon, they went down in order this time against the All-Star closer.
So the Nationals trudged off the field at the end of the night. They took two of three from the soon-to-be division champs, they've won 10 of their last 12 games, 27 of their last 38. But one measly loss on Wednesday quickly put a damper on all that.
"I mean, it's definitely disappointing," Ohlendorf said. "We've been winning almost every game. We certainly can't win the rest, but any loss is going to be disappointing. Any time you lose, but especially now."