ATLANTA -- There were 41,000 in the stands, scoring opportunities were at a premium, the managers were trying to out-think each other in a late-game chess match and ultimately the outcome was decided by one key moment.
The calendar read Sept. 14. The vibe inside Turner Field felt more like October.
The Nationals can only be thankful the result -- a 2-1 heartbreaking loss to the Braves -- doesn't count as much as some potential future ones might.
"This is playoff baseball," said right fielder Jayson Werth, who certainly has experienced his share over the years. "Every team we play for the rest of the way is in the hunt and hungry, so these are the types of games we're going to play for the
next six weeks. We're going to have some tests, and I think we're up to the
challenge. More times than not, I think we're going to win that game."
The Nationals had every opportunity to win Friday night's taut series opener, getting six strong innings out of Ross Detwiler, Bryce Harper's 19th homer as a 19-year-old and some sterling defensive play from a variety of sources.
But they simply couldn't push across another run against a dominant Atlanta pitching staff that tallied 17 strikeouts, and then with the game tied in the bottom of the ninth they couldn't prevent the winning run from sliding across the plate.
That run scored as a result of an errant throw by Ian Desmond, who after fielding Tyler Pastornicky's bouncer to short made a desperate attempt to nab speedy rookie Andrelton Simmons at the plate. With his infield playing in and runners on the corners, reliever Sean Burnett got exactly what he wanted: a two-hopper to short. Desmond might have used a split-second more to set himself before making the throw but the margin for error was slim from the start.
"If I set, he's already sliding in celebrating," said Desmond, who was charged with an error on the play. "There was a probably 1-in-10 chance, and I didn't get him."
With that do-or-die play, the Nationals dropped the opener of this key series against their lone remaining division rival and saw their lead drop to 7 12 games. There was, however, no sense of dread inside the losing clubhouse, just an acknowledgment that the other guys played a little better and that there will be plenty more games like this before the 2012 season ends.
"You can't really hang your head too much," Werth said. "It was a tight game. Both teams battled, and they were able to push one across at the end. Seemed like they just kinda bled us to death at the end there and got us in a tough spot. ... We got a lot of big games coming the rest of the way. Nothing to be discouraged about."
If anything, the Nationals came out of this one encouraged by the performance of a young pitcher they're going to have to count on down the stretch. With six innings of one-run ball, Detwiler gave him team a chance and lowered his season ERA to 3.16.
That's the exact same ERA Stephen Strasburg had when his season came to an end, having thrown only 8 13 more innings than Detwiler (who ultimately would take Strasburg's spot in the Nationals' playoff rotation).
"Det showed me something," manager Davey Johnson said. "Going out there, he had some hard innings and went back out for the sixth and threw a great game."
The 26-year-old lefty seemed to find himself in trouble just about the entire night, giving up at least one hit in each of his first five innings. But aside from Freddie Freeman's leadoff double in the fourth, none of them came around to score.
It didn't hurt that Detwiler was helped out by his defense, especially Roger Bernadina, who in the fifth slammed into the left-field wall to rob Jason Heyward of what probably would have been an RBI double. Bernadina grabbed his right shoulder afterward and appeared to be in pain, but he remained in the game and said afterward he was fine after sacrificing his body to make one of the best catches of the year.
"You don't think about it," Bernadina said. "You just go on instinct. I know I was pretty close. The only play I could make was to jump to get it. I had to keep us in the game."
At the time of the play, the Nationals trailed 1-0, barely able to put the ball in play against Braves starter Kris Medlen, who struck out a career-high over seven dominant innings. Only Harper enjoyed any real success against him, singling in the first, drawing a walk in the third and then mashing a first-pitch curveball to left in the top of the sixth for the 19th homer of his rookie season.
The Nationals would record only one more hit the rest of the night, a two-out single by Kurt Suzuki in the seventh. They went down in order against lefty Eric O'Flaherty in the eighth, then were blown away by Craig Kimbrel in the ninth, with the Atlanta closer striking out Adam LaRoche, Desmond and Danny Espinosa in succession on only 10 pitches.
All told, the Nationals struck out 17 times. Of the 33 batters they sent to the plate, only 15 managed to put the ball in play.
"Good pitching beats good hitting every day of the week, and Medlen was good
tonight," Werth said. "Hit his spots, kept the ball down, pitched backwards at times and was aggressive in the zone, got strike one and pitched tough."
They may not be overwhelmed by an opposing pitcher quite this much come October, but the Nationals should expect more games like this. Playoff baseball almost always comes down to dominant pitching and the ability to take advantage of what few scoring opportunities you get.
The Nationals didn't have many opportunities Friday night, and they certainly didn't take advantage when they did. They couldn't find fault with much they did over the course of nine innings, yet they didn't win the game.
"No one in here is hanging their head," Desmond said. "More scratching their head than hanging their head, I guess."
Expect plenty more head-scratchers before this whole thing is over.