After weekend sweep, are Braves in Nats' heads?

After weekend sweep, are Braves in Nats' heads?
April 13, 2014, 6:30 pm
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ATLANTA — It would be one thing if the Nationals' struggles against the Braves were limited to one bad weekend, as was the case the last three days at Turner Field. Or a couple of bad series, as has been case the last 10 days.

But the lopsided nature of this NL East rivalry has been going on much longer than that. Go back to the start of the 2013 season, when a supremely confident Nationals club sported a 7-2 record and then got swept by Atlanta, beginning a chain reaction that continued through Sunday.

A 10-2 drubbing at Turner Field was only the latest — and most disheartening — development. It left the Nationals 1-5 against the Braves this season (compared to 6-0 against everyone else) and 7-18 against the Braves over the last two seasons (compared to 86-63 against everyone else).

Put in other terms: Since the beginning of 2013, the Nationals have played at a 94-win pace against the rest of the NL and six interleague opponents ... and at a 45-win pace against that pesky ballclub from down south.

"Maybe when we're out there playing them, we do well for whatever reason," Atlanta shortstop Andrelton Simmons told reporters after Sunday's game. "If anything, it might be in their head."

That's the fear, that the Nationals have let this rivalry disrupt them to some extent, that they haven't been mentally strong enough to play these big games against their biggest rivals and defending division champs.

Washington's players, coaches and executives have been trying to downplay that angle, insisting these games carry no more weight than others. There were, however, clear signs of aggravation (and perhaps some resignation) after this weekend's sweep.

Asked when this moves beyond simple losses to a rival and becomes frustrating, Ian Desmond replied: "About 30 games ago."

"I feel the same way pretty much every time we play these guys," the shortstop added. "It's tough. It sucks getting beat. We know we can play with them. Maybe try something different next time."

If anything, the Nationals might have tried too hard this weekend. They consistently made mistakes in the field (seven errors), struggled to produce in key spots (going 7-for-34 with runners in scoring position) and digging themselves into big holes early (they were outscored 14-1 in the first and second innings during this series).

"It's going to happen sometimes, but what we can't do is get out of ourselves," manager Matt Williams said. "Don't allow anything to take you out of your game. It didn't work for us this weekend, but we've got another game tomorrow. We have to concentrate on that."

Sunday's series finale saw Gio Gonzalez, who had given up only one run in his first 12 innings of the season, get tagged for six runs only 12 batters in. He opened his afternoon with a walk, then was charged with an error on a sacrifice bunt attempt, then served up towering home runs to Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman.

"Against a good-hitting team, you leave the ball up, any single mistake, they're going to make you pay for it," Gonzalez said. "That's exactly what happened. We were basically beating ourselves up."

That was the common theme all weekend. While giving credit to Atlanta for playing well, the Nationals also realized they didn't help their own cause the way they played.

"It sucks coming here to lose," said outfielder Bryce Harper, one of the few bright spots after reaching base 10 times in 14 plate appearances. "Nobody wants to lose. But like I said, it’s part of the game. Sometimes you gotta tip your cap a little bit, and hopefully when they come back to our place, win that series."

The Braves won't be coming back to D.C. anytime soon, not until June 19. And the Nationals won't be venturing down this way for an even longer stretch, not until Aug. 8.

Maybe that's for the best.

"Great games, and they've come out on the winning side of it more than we'd like," general manager Mike Rizzo said prior to Sunday's game. "But we feel confident against this team. We feel we're better than this team. We respect them and we respect their organization. But we don't fear them. We think we're the better team, and at the end of the day we're going to come out on top."

Maybe so. But eventually, the Nationals are going to have to beat them head-to-head. Or, at the very least, hold their own against a rival that has become much more than just another opponent.