Scratch "play on the road" as a possible solution to the Braves' winless woes: the Braves dropped their first road game, and sixth straight contest of 2016, to remain winless on the young season. On the immediate plus side, Mallex Smith had a pretty successful major league debut, with an infield hit and a run scored on the back of his blazing speed. On the minus side, he also departed the game after suffering a cut on his face during a stolen base attempt. To add insult to injury, he was also gunned down by Wilson Ramos, who terrorized the Braves in this game, on the play. (For more on Smith's injury, read here. He's day-to-day right now and should return shortly.)
In what's rapidly become old hat (one that you might tip to the opposition, I suppose), the Braves blew leads and suffered through some spotty pitching in tonight's contest. Specifically, the pitching blew two leads, and timely hitting dried up in the second half of the game to prevent any semblance of a comeback. Mercifully, no major defensive miscues doomed the squad tonight, but there's always tomorrow for that sort of thing.
Mallex Smith made his first major league plate appearance in the top of the first and promptly struck out on three pitches from Nationals' ace Max Scherzer. Scherzer, however, would struggle throughout this game, and his fortune soured later in the first: with two outs, Scherzer walked Freddie Freeman on four pitches, followed by Adonis Garcia pulling a slider on the outer half of the plate over the infield for a single. That brought up early-season goat (not GOAT) AJ Pierzynski, who jumped all over Scherzer's first pitch and hit it deep into right center for a two-run double, scoring both Freeman and Garcia.
Bud Norris then promptly went to work on erasing his scoreboard advantage, allowing a single and a steal to Michael Taylor, and then a walk to Bryce Harper, followed by a double steal. Ryan Zimmerman, who has given Norris fits in the past (he had 3 homers and 6 hits in 17 PAs against Norris coming into the game), hit a sacrifice fly to score Taylor, and then apparent Braves nemesis Daniel Murphy, who sunk the Braves on Opening Day with an extra-inning hit, drilled a two-run homer to right center to give the Nationals a 3-2 lead. (Norris would then walk Jayson Werth and allow a single to Wilson Ramos, but got Danny Espinosa looking to keep the deficit at one.)
The Braves (surprisingly?) jumped right back on Scherzer in the second. Jace Peterson hit a one-out single back up the box, was bunted to second by Norris, and reached third on Mallex Smith's first major league hit, a roller to Murphy at second that he momentarily bobbled, allowing Smith's blazing speed to see him safely to first. That set the stage for Nick Markakis, who cracked the first of his two doubles on the night on a hanging full-count breaking ball from Scherzer. Smith flew around the bases, and while it's an exaggeration to say that he was basically safe at home by the time Bryce Harper was able to flag down the ball, that's certainly how it felt. That would be the last run the Braves would score; Scherzer intentionally walked Freeman with Markakis on second, but Garcia hit a hard liner right to Taylor in center to end the frame.
The Nationals gave Norris and the Braves a breather but tied the game in the bottom of the third, with three ground ball singles from Zimmerman, Werth, and Ramos to load the bases. Erick Aybar made a rangy play to stop Ramos' hit from reaching the outfield and possibly allowing Zimmerman to score, but his inability to record an out on the play set up Espinosa's game-tying sacrifice fly.
The fourth inning was definitely the weirdest: Scherzer walked Norris on five pitches, and after Smith hit into a fielder's choice, he began to torment Scherzer with Nick Markakis at the dish, forcing multiple throws back to first. Finally, on the sixth pitch of the at-bat, Smith took off for second but was gunned down by Wilson Ramos, with the unfortunate side effect of helmet-into-face-and-lots-of-blood-time.
The Braves then failed to manufacture a run after Nick Markakis' leadoff double in the fifth. Freeman actually moved Markakis over to third with one out with a grounder to the right side, but Adonis Garcia struck out and AJ Pierzynski hit a routine grounder to end the scoring threat. The Nationals did not waste a similar leadoff double from Ryan Zimmerman in the bottom half of the inning, as Zimmerman moved to third on a foulout to Freeman and then scored on a grounder by Ramos (there's that man again) that hit the second base umpire. Norris finished the game with a perfectly blase line of 5 IP, 9 H, 5 R (5 ER), 2 BB, 4 K, 1 HR, a far cry from his surprisingly effective Atlanta debut. As the Braves failed to score, he was also saddled with his second loss of the year.
The rest of the game proceeded in a pretty straightforward fashion, which is to say that the Braves offense failed to make any substantial noise and the bullpen gave up another run. Jason Grilli appeared in the sixth inning for the first time since 2014 and set down the Nationals in order. Nick Markakis was unable to hit yet another double in the seventh with Drew Stubbs (who replaced Smith) on first, hitting into an inning-ending double play instead. In the bottom of the seventh, the Braves bullpen combined to give up another run: Eric O'Flaherty sandwiched a Zimmerman walk between successfully retiring Harper and Murphy and then gave way to Alexi Ogando, who walked Werth on five pitches and then gave up a little dink that fell in front of Markakis to (guess who) Ramos to score Zimmerman. Ogando worked around an Adonis Garcia throwing error that put a runner on third with one out in the eighth, but that bit of run prevention did not matter much.
In the ninth, Nationals closer Jonathan Papelbon choked away all remaining hope for the Braves, as they went quietly on three fly outs to their sixth defeat of the season.
Markakis and Garcia were the only Braves to finish with multiple hits; Freeman joined them in the on-base-twice-in-this-game club with two walks. Zimmerman and Ramos combined to brutalize the Braves in this one: Zimmerman scored each time he reached base, thanks in large part to Ramos, who went 4-for-4 (all singles) and drove in Zimmerman two of those times.
Jhoulys Chacin gets the call tomorrow for the Braves against Gio Gonzalez, who will also make his season debut for the Nationals despite being a rotation stalwart for them for the past four seasons. Who knows, maybe lucky number seven will finally result in a win.