ATLANTA - There are battles worth fighting, and then there are days when the long-term picture must take precedence. The Nationals found themselves at the convergence of those two scenarios this afternoon at Turner Field, and though they battled to an extent in an attempt to beat the Braves, they weren't necessarily devastated when they ultimately lost 7-6 on Jace Peterson's 10th-inning homer, sparing their overworked bullpen the need to throw any more pitches at the end of a long week.
"You hate to lose, but we didn't have any more pitching after that," manager Dusty Baker said. "And our pitching was dragging as it was. I know it's going to be hard to take, but sometimes it's a blessing in disguise. Because that could've wrecked us for the next week."
On the final day of a week that included three games in Colorado, four games in Atlanta, three rain delays, three starts of fewer than five innings and six games that lasted at least 3 hours and 26 minutes, the Nationals were running on fumes. And they looked like it.
What has been one of baseball's best defensive squads all season committed five errors (most for this team since 2011 and one shy of the club record). Players dragged through another long day in heat and humidity and a 1-hour, 4-minute rain delay in the bottom of the eighth.
And when it was over, they had a flight to Baltimore and a four-game series with the Orioles next on the docket, followed by six more games after that before their next scheduled off-day.
The good news: They've gone 7-3 through the first half of this 20-games-in-20-days stretch, and they still lead the NL East by 9 1/2 games.
"The wins are helping it stay afloat," said outfielder Chris Heisey, who filled in for Jayson Werth in left field and homered. "It's tough. Hot days. Tiring. I played in one game today, and I just was thinking in the 10th inning how these guys have done it for however many days straight. ... These guys are playing hard and playing a lot of days in a lot of heat. It's grueling, but I think we're hanging in there. And having a nice lead in the division is helping, also."
Despite their struggles this weekend against a last-place Braves club that to its credit kept fighting through the final out each day, the Nationals did emerge winning three-of-four. And they were in position to finish off the sweep this afternoon, leading 4-0 in the third and 6-3 in the sixth.
But Gio Gonzalez, who knew how few fresh arms there were in the bullpen, lasted only 5 2/3 innings, throwing 112 pitches. And that put Baker in the difficult position of asking already-tired relievers to give whatever they had left.
"This loss is definitely on me," Gonzalez said. "I should've gone deeper in the game. After these guys put up four runs in the third inning, I should've gone out there and shut it down with a quick inning. ... I have to do a better job of minimizing damage."
Of the seven members of the Nationals' current bullpen, five had either pitched at least two straight or three of the last four days. Another, Oliver Perez, has been unavailable due to back tightness; Baker said he hopes the lefty is available Monday in Baltimore, but that is far from a sure thing.
That left Yusmeiro Petit as the only truly fresh reliever available, but the rubber-armed right-hander couldn't follow up 1 1/3 scoreless innings with another clean frame. Petit served up a solo homer to Matt Kemp in the eighth, then loaded the bases before heavy rain forced everyone off the field.
By the time the delay was over, Blake Treinen took over on the mound. And though the sinkerball specialist did as well as possible given the circumstances - inducing two groundballs to short - he couldn't prevent the tying run from crossing the plate.
Treinen also pitched the ninth inning, but then Baker had to turn to Shawn Kelley for the fourth time in five days. The veteran setup man, twice the recipient of Tommy John surgery, got two quick outs but then left a 3-2 slider over the plate to Peterson, who launched it over the right field wall to end the game.
"We're tired," Kelley said. "There's no denying that. But we've still got to go out and execute. We've done a great job on this road trip so far, as a whole, and found ways to get it done and win games. Today, it just didn't happen. You go through stretches like this, and this is where you test what you're made of."
What would the Nationals' plan have been had Kelley gotten through the 10th and they needed another pitcher for the 11th?
"There really wasn't much of a plan," Baker admitted.
Which begs the follow-up question: Were enough pitchers able to rest today, or are the Nationals still going to have trouble finding enough available arms Monday night?
"When you're in a 20-in-a-row streak, you never have enough guys," Baker said. "We were kind of running on fumes today. And then that rain delay didn't help at all. ... Everybody's like, 'Hey man, you've got to get some help.' But where are you going to get the help from? That's easier said than done."