ATLANTA — He had been alternately dominant and maddening, striking out some batters at will yet unable to put away others, fighting for his life to get through the fifth inning with only one run on the scoreboard despite a massively high pitch count.
And when he got Jason Heyward to tap a grounder to the right side of the infield, Gio Gonzalez thought for a moment he had escaped and kept his Nationals tied with the Braves in the rubber game of this key weekend series between division rivals. Except for one small problem: He never bothered to cover first base. Which proved significant when Danny Espinosa fielded the ball and found nobody to whom he could throw it.
Emilio Bonifacio scampered home, the surprisingly small crowd of 18,191 roared and the Braves took a lead they would not give back en route to a frustrating 3-1 loss by the Nationals.
"We had a shot at getting him at first base, certainly," manager Matt Williams said. "And there was nobody there. Ultimately, that's the difference in the game."
Both Gonzalez and first baseman Adam LaRoche, whose lunging stab at the ball hit to his right came up short, took blame for the gaffe.
"I should've got over there, simple as that," said Gonzalez, who has been burned by that same mistake before. "There's no excuse. You've got to get over on that play, keep your team in the game."
"I was a little conscious about trying to get off (the base) as far as I could," said LaRoche, who was upset he didn't notice how Espinosa was in position to make a fairly easy play. "If it looks like I have any chance to go after it, I did. And I turn around and Danny is right there. I should've got a better read on the ball, and obviously [Gonzalez] should have been over there. Just very typical of the way we give up runs against these guys. ... They push those runs across in some odd ways against us."
Indeed, the two runs the Braves scored that the Nationals didn't in this game weren't the result of good swings or well-stuck balls. Heyward's grounder in the fifth brought home the go-ahead run, and then Evan Gattis' bloop, opposite-field single off Jerry Blevins in the eighth brought home a key insurance run.
That Gattis hit came on Blevins' 36th pitch of the night, an unusually high total for the left-hander, who had to that point pitched brilliantly in striking out five of the first six batters he faced. But when the Braves put two on with two out in the eighth and Gattis stepped to the plate, more than a few eyes turned to the Nationals dugout, assuming Williams would emerge to make a pitching change and summon a right-hander.
Williams, though, stuck with Blevins, hoping his lefty could get one more out against a fearsome right-handed slugger. Blevins did do just about everything in his power, getting Gattis to barely make contact and bloop the ball to shallow right field. But it was perfectly placed, and just enough to get the run home and spoil an otherwise fantastic relief appearance.
"That's the way of the reliever, I guess," Blevins said. "I felt great, and I have for the last few outings. I feel like I pitched well. Unfortunately I gave up that run. A 2-run lead there, too, against (Braves closer Craig) Kimbrel coming in, it's a lot bigger deal than a 1-run lead. It was a big run."
Williams' explanation for not making a pitching change there: Setup man Tyler Clippard had pitched the last three days, while fellow right-handers Drew Storen and Rafael Soriano had pitched two of the last three days. Had the score been 1-1, instead of 2-1, he might have used a different strategy.
"We've got an off-day tomorrow, but we're at that point one run away from tying it," Williams said. "And the way we've been going, we have a couple of guys we don't want to go to if we don't have to. But he made a good pitch. It was a little blooper. That happens sometimes. He made the pitches he wanted to make on Gattis, and he squeezed one in there. Down a run there, we're not going to go to the back-of-our-bullpen guys again."
Failed fundamentals or debatable bullpen use aside, the Nationals weren't going to win this game scoring only one run. That's all they managed against Braves lefty Alex Wood, who struck out 12 over 7 1/3 innings, throwing a whopping 124 pitches to help give his own overworked bullpen a breather.
At the end of the night, though, it was hard to look past the Nationals' pitching mistakes, especially the unsatisfying performance put forth by Gonzalez on a night when his team needed something more.
"He did a good job," Ian Desmond said. "Five innings. We have a bullpen good enough to keep us afloat. It's not like he gave up a 10-spot. He was effective. We just didn't score any runs. If we win the game, nobody's talking about Gio coming out of the game with 100 pitches or whatever. It's up to us as an offense when he doesn't have his good nights to pick him up, and we didn't do that."