Ross sharp, but Nats fall 6-2 to Braves in rain-shortened game

ATLANTA - The Nationals had to be pleased with Joe Ross' return to the mound after a long stint on the disabled list. The rest of the club's performance today against the Braves? Not so much.

Ross looked sharp during a planned three-inning start, his first appearance in a big league game since right shoulder inflammation sidelined him in early July. But the bullpen gave up five runs after replacing Ross, and the lineup couldn't manage much at the plate during a 6-2 loss that was called in the bottom of the seventh after rain interrupted play for the second time.

After winning 15 of their first 17 games with the Braves this season, the Nationals wound up losing their final two against the last-place opponent. As such, their magic number to clinch the National League East title remains six as they now head to Miami for the second leg of this three-city road trip. They could still mathematically wrap things up Wednesday night at Marlins Park, but they are far more likely to have to wait until the weekend in Pittsburgh to pop the champagne corks.

Ross-Throws-Red-Sidebar.jpgA victory today would have been nice, but the Nationals' primary goal was to get Ross through three innings in good health. In that regard, this was a success.

The right-hander made five rehab starts (in two separate stints) and pitched in a simulated game since late July, never throwing more than roughly 60 pitches. Given that, manager Dusty Baker planned to limit him to three innings or so this afternoon, unless his pitch count was extremely low.

Ross wound up throwing 51 pitches through three innings, 38 of those for strikes. His fastball velocity (93-to-95 mph) was good. His command was sharp. And he showed no signs of injury or discomfort.

"I was happy," Ross said. "I think I did well. Kind of got myself into a jam and had to get out of it in the third (inning). But it felt good, and that's really what I was mainly concerned with today: going out there and feeling good and competing."

The Braves did pick up six hits against Ross, all of them singles. But he didn't walk a batter, and he struck out five before departing after the third.

"The guys in the bullpen told me that he was coming out hot," Baker said. "And that's a good sign, when it comes out hot. And especially when Joe has movement and he has command."

Ross, who figures to get two more starts down the stretch to make his case for a spot in the Nationals' postseason rotation, also recorded a base hit of his own in his first at-bat, leaving him 10-for-37 at the plate this year.

Reynaldo Lopez gave up two quick runs in the fourth inning, with Dansby Swanson's double and Adonis Garcia's single driving in teammates. Rafael Martin and Marc Rzepczynski combined to give up three more runs in the bottom of the sixth, negating the two runs the Nationals scored in the top of the inning sandwiched around the afternoon's first rain delay of 1 hour, 7 minutes.

The second round of rain came while the Braves were batting in the bottom of the seventh. Just as Baker tried to make a pitching change, replacing Trevor Gott with Matt Grace, crew chief Joe West called for the tarp again, sending the game into its second delay.

The grounds grew tried to prepare the field again during a break in the rain, but the infield and batter's box remained in poor condition, and another cell was about to descend on the area, so West called the game shortly after 7 p.m., some 5 1/2 hours after it began.

"They did what they could to save the field," Baker said. "Then they called me out. I talked to Joe West earlier. The league office wouldn't let us call it at that time, because we were behind and we're in a pennant race. But I went outside and ... the infield was like quicksand. It had a bunch of Diamond Dry on it. And I said we can't afford to get anybody hurt, so we called the game. ... It was supposed to clear up about 10 o'clock, but the field would've been unplayable."

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