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Braves rally to shock Nats in 11

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Braves rally to shock Nats in 11

In their first seven years of existence, the Washington Nationals lost plenty of ballgames in devastating fashion. They lost on walk-off homers. They lost on walk-off throwing errors. They lost on walk-off wild pitches. They even once lost on a walk-off balk from a guy making his debut appearance with the organization.

But most of those losses, crushing as they felt at the time, didn't carry much weight in the grand scheme of things. Instead of losing 102 games at season's end, they would lose 103.

This, on the other hand, this was different. A blown nine-run lead against a division rival in the first game of perhaps the biggest series in the club's brief history? This was a crushing loss.

"It hurts. It hurts bad," reliever Tyler Clippard said after the Nationals turned a 9-0 lead into an 11-10, 11-inning loss to a Braves team suddenly 2 12 games back in the NL East.

Never mind the fact this was the largest lead blown in franchise history, dating back to the Montreal Expos' inaugural season in 1969. It was the manner in which that 9-run was blown, and the manner in which a game that could have resulted in as stirring a victory as the Nationals have ever enjoyed into as upsetting a loss as they've ever experienced.

And it was the look on Davey Johnson's face as the 69-year-old skipper took the blame for letting this thing devolve into what it did.

"I feel bad," he said. "The guys played hard. It was probably, arguably the worst game I've ever managed in my life. I've never lost a 9-run lead when it was my part of the game to handle the pitching. It'll be hard for me to sleep. I had a worse night than the guys did."

For five innings, this was arguably as great a night as the Nationals had seen in a long time. Behind towering, three-run homers from Michael Morse and Ryan Zimmerman, they jumped out to a 9-0 lead that left the crowd of 34,228 in ecstasy even as a steady rain began to fall.

And with Stephen Strasburg on the mound, has a 9-0 lead ever felt safer?

"Ninety-nine times out of 100, we win that game," Clippard game.

Well, 99 percent is not 100 percent. And as Clippard later pointed out: "Baseball's weird. Anything can happen."

The meltdown began in the top of the sixth, with Strasburg still on the mound. He hadn't been his sharpest all night, and it finally caught up with him when he gave up four hits in a span of five batters, including Brian McCann's home run and Eric Hinske's double off the top of the right-field wall.

"I felt like he just wasn't going after them," Johnson said. "He wasted a lot of pitches. He really doesn't know who he is at times. He doesn't trust his stuff."

Did Strasburg let his intensity level dip at all with a 9-run lead?

"Myself, I'm always intense out there," he said. "I don't like pitching to the scoreboard. To me, it was still a 0-0 ballgame. But I'd say in the grand scheme of things, it can be tough. Obviously you put up a lot of runs early, and you just kind of take your mind out of it for a split second and they get back in it and it gets to be crunch time."

By the time the inning ended, with Michael Gonzalez allowing two inherited runners to score, the Nationals' lead was down to 9-4.

Then came perhaps Johnson's biggest managerial mistake: He summoned Drew Storen for the eighth inning, one day after the reliever made his season debut three months removed from elbow surgery. Storen immediately gave up a hit and a walk, and Johnson immediately emerged from the dugout seeking the ball.

"There's a few things I'd take back," Johnson said, declining to offer specifics. "I mean, I don't even want to go there. But that's my part of the game. Those are my matchups."

Sean Burnett replaced Storen and only poured more gasoline on the fire. He got two quick strikeouts but then allowed four straight batters to reach base, with four runs scoring in the process. Just like that, the lead was down to 9-8.

In the bullpen, Clippard suddenly had to prepare to pitch the ninth inning of a game he never expected he'd see.

"I was ready," the closer insisted.

Clippard, though, had struggled in each of his three previous outings, and he immediately got himself into trouble when he walked Dan Uggla, uncorked a wild pitch and then drilled the .118-hitting Paul Janish in the back. Two batters later, Michael Bourn crushed a two-run triple off the top of the fence, completing an improbable rally and putting the Nationals in a 10-9 deficit that left the entire ballpark in stunned silence.

"I'm a little concerned," Johnson said of his struggling closer. "He was a little wild tonight. He's not wild. He hasn't been wild at all in that role. But it never should have got to a 1-run lead. That's why I say it's my fault."

Suddenly down to their final three outs, Danny Espinosa reignited the crowd and the home dugout when he blasted a 98-mph fastball from Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel into the left-field bullpen.

Just like that, the game was tied 10-10 and headed to extra innings. And just like that, the Nationals found a way to lose on an error, a passed ball and a bloop single.

The top of the 11th began with Uggla rapping a hard shot to third base. Zimmerman made an impressive, lunging play to snag the ball, then pirouetted and fired to first base. The ball was thrown a good 10 feet wide of the bag, landing near the rolled up tarp along the right-field stands.

"I got a good grip on it, and I had to just turn and fire," Zimmerman said. "That was my only shot. I don't want to catch a ball like that and then not even attempt to throw him out. I think that's the play, and I would do it over again if I had the same opportunity."

Rookie catcher Sandy Leon, who had entered the game four innings earlier after Jesus Flores complained of a stiff back, couldn't handle a low pitch from Tom Gorzelanny. That allowed Uggla to take third base and forced the Nationals infield to play way in. Which allowed Janish's blooper to fall in just beyond the outstretched reach of shortstop Ian Desmond and allowed Uggla to score the eventual game-winning run.

The Nationals went down quietly in the bottom of the 11th, and the home clubhouse was even quieter at the end of a 4-hour, 21-minute marathon that ended in crushing fashion.

They had all of 13 hours to contemplate it before they have to retake the field for the first game of Saturday's doubleheader. How do you bounce back so quickly from such a devastating loss?

"Same way we'd come back if we won 3-2," Zimmerman insisted. "It's one game. Obviously it's an emotional game for people watching, and it gets us a little bit. But in the grand scheme of things, it's one game. We show up tomorrow just like we do after every other game."

It sounds simple enough. Whether the Nationals can actually do it remains to be seen.

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Nationals' Jeremy Hellickson exits game after collision

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USA Today Sports Images

Nationals' Jeremy Hellickson exits game after collision

Washington Nationals right-hander Jeremy Hellickson was removed from Wednesday night's game in St. Louis in the fifth inning after colliding with Cardinals outfielder Harrison Bader at the plate.

Hellickson was covering home after a wild pitch. He stumbled over Bader as Bader slid home safely.

Hellickson was charged with three runs, two earned, on three hits in his 4 1/3 innings. He struck out two and walked two.

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John Gant homers, pitches Cardinals to 6-4 win over Nationals

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USA TODAY Sports

John Gant homers, pitches Cardinals to 6-4 win over Nationals

ST. LOUIS -- Even John Gant cracked a smile.

Gant homered for his first major league hit and pitched one-run ball into the sixth inning, helping the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Washington Nationals 6-4 on Tuesday night for their season-high seventh consecutive victory.

Kolten Wong had three hits and three RBIs as St. Louis (65-55) pulled within four games of the NL Central-leading Chicago Cubs and moved within one game of the Philadelphia Phillies for the second NL wild card. The Cardinals also improved to 18-9 since Mike Shildt was named interim manager on July 13, the most wins for a manager through his first 27 games in franchise history.

"Things are starting to click for us," Wong said. "We're playing confident. We're out there playing aggressive and I think it's the kind of baseball Cardinals fans have been waiting for."

The Nationals (60-60) have dropped six of eight to fall eight games behind Atlanta in the NL East.

"We've just got to keep pulling the same rope, keep grinding it out, keep trying to win ballgames," Nationals slugger Bryce Harper said.

Gant (5-4) permitted four hits and struck out six in 5 1/3 innings. He has given up just two earned runs over 11 1/3 innings in his last two starts, both wins.

The 26-year-old Gant was 0 for 30 for his career when he drove a 1-1 pitch from Gio Gonzalez (7-9) over the wall in left in the second. The two-run shot gave Washington a 3-0 lead.

"I was jogging kind of my hands in the air," said Wong, who scored on Gant's homer. "I already knew it was going out. Looking back I think he almost caught me."

Added Gant, "I thought it was going to hit the wall maybe but when I finally looked up and (Wong) was looking back at me, that's when I knew it was going over the wall."

Gant, who has a reputation for being a stoic player, admitted to smiling "once or twice" once he got back to the dugout.

Wong's solo homer made it 6-1 in the sixth, but Washington responded with three in the eighth. Harper hit a two-run shot, and Daniel Murphy singled in Anthony Rendon.

Matt Adams then struck out looking against Dakota Hudson, ending the inning, and Jordan Hicks worked the ninth for his fourth save in eight chances.

Paul DeJong also doubled and scored for St. Louis one night after he connected for a game-ending homer in a 7-6 victory. Matt Carpenter walked in the sixth to extend his on-base streak to 32 games.

"We have a 25-man roster and we have confidence in all of them," Shildt said. "They're here for a reason and guys are looking to contribute every night and in different ways."

Gonzalez was charged with five runs and five hits in four innings. The veteran left-hander is just 1-4 in his last six starts.

"I wasn't hitting my spots," Gonzalez said. "Just not being as consistent in the strike zone as I should be. It's just one of those games you can't explain."

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