Braves cling to wild-card lead after loss to Nationals

WASHINGTON -- The top four hitters in the Braves' lineup, including Chipper Jones and Dan Uggla, went a combined 0 for 16 with five strikeouts Sunday in a 3-0 loss to the Washington Nationals that cut Atlanta's NL wild-card lead over St. Louis to one game.

"This was a very brutal loss for us," Braves rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman said.

Atlanta has dropped 10 of its past 15 games, allowing St. Louis to close in. The Braves finish the regular season with a three-game home series starting Monday against the NL East champion Philadelphia Phillies.

Wilson Ramos homered off Braves starter Mike Minor (5-3) in the fourth, and Michael Morse hit the 29th of his breakout season -- a two-run shot -- off reliever Cristhian Martinez in the seventh.

Ross Detwiler (4-5) went six innings for Washington before a crowd of 37,638 in the final game of 2011 at Nationals Park. He allowed four hits and two walks while striking out four. Over his last two starts of the season, the lefty pitched 13 1/3 scoreless innings, with seven hits, seven strikeouts and three walks.

The last 15 Braves batters made outs, including seven strikeouts.

With nothing more at stake than a third-place finish, the Nationals have played well down the stretch, winning 12 of 15 games. That includes taking two of three from the struggling Braves.

"We know what's at stake. We know what every game means," Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez said before the game. "You've got to go out and play the game with some fun. We can't play with white knuckles on the bat and hold the ball so hard you can't throw it."

There were some key moments Sunday when his hitters did fail to produce in the clutch.

In the third, the Braves loaded the bases with no outs, thanks to David Ross' single and some serious wildness by Detwiler, who walked No. 8 hitter Jack Wilson and then the opposing pitcher.

All told, Detwiler threw eight consecutive pitches that were called balls, going to a 3-0 count on leadoff hitter Michael Bourn -- with nowhere to put him.

After finally putting one pitch over the plate for a called strike -- and drawing sarcastic cheers from the crowd at Nationals Park -- Detwiler got Bourn to fly out to left in foul territory. Bearing down some more, Detwiler got out of the inning unscathed: Martin Prado hit a fly to right that wasn't deep enough for Ross to try to tag up and head for home, before Jones grounded out.

The bottom of the order gave the Braves another opportunity to score two innings later, but again they came away with nothing to show for it.

Ross led off with an infield single, Wilson singled to center, and Minor moved them up with a sacrifice bunt -- putting runners at second and third with one out. But Bourn lined out to second and Prado flied out.

"You need to get those runs in," Uggla said, "or more than likely it's going to come back to haunt you."

In each of his other four innings, Detwiler faced the minimum three hitters.

Henry Rodriguez replaced Detwiler in the seventh and was rather impressive, regularly reaching 100 or 101 mph and striking out all three batters he faced. He got pinch hitter Jason Heyward swinging at a 100 mph fastball, Ross on a two-strike foul bunt on a 101 mph offering, and Wilson looking at an 88 mph slider with a ton of movement.

Tyler Clippard pitched the eighth, and closer Drew Storen got the last three outs for his 42nd save in 47 chances.

Minor hadn't lost in his preceding 11 starts; his last loss came May 31 against San Diego. He threw 4 2/3 innings, giving up six hits and one run.

Game notes
Braves RHP Kris Medlen came on in relief in the eighth inning, his first appearance since Aug. 4, 2010. Medlen had reconstructive elbow surgery later that month and came off the disabled list Saturday. ... Braves INF Alex Gonzalez was out of the starting lineup with a strained right calf muscle for the fourth consecutive game. He said he might be able to play Monday against Philadelphia. ... The Braves will send RHP Randall Delgado (1-1) to the mound in the first game of their season-ending series against the Phillies, who will start LHP Cliff Lee (16-8). ... In Wednesday's season finale, the Braves could start RHP Tommy Hanson (on the DL since Aug. 7 with right shoulder tendinitis) if they've already clinched a playoff berth, Fredi Gonzalez said. Otherwise, RHP Tim Hudson will start on regular rest. ... Atlanta RHP Jair Jurrjens threw three innings in the Instructional League Saturday, and Gonzalez said he could be activated from the DL for the first round of the playoffs. Jurrjens (strained right knee) has been out since Aug. ... Atlanta LHP George Sherrill (left elbow) could be activated this week. ... Nationals RHP Stephen Strasburg will be on an innings limit next season, GM Mike Rizzo said. ... Washington wraps up the season with a three-game series at the Florida Marlins. LHP Tommy Milone -- the Nationals are 4-0 in the rookie's four major league starts -- will pitch Monday against Florida's Anibal Sanchez.