Braves find runs hard to come by vs. Nats

Braves find runs hard to come by vs. Nats

ATLANTA -- Less than 24 hours after conquering Stephen Strasburg, the Braves allowed Craig Stammen to assume the role of phenom. Consequently, they were unable to erase the damage created by a decisive three-run fifth inning that prolonged Derek Lowe's recent struggles against the Nationals.

Three weeks ago the Nationals sent Stammen to the Minors to make room for Strasburg to make his anticipated entry into their rotation.

Stammen's return to the Majors on Tuesday, a 7-2 win over the Braves at Turner Field, provided further reason to believe that the Nationals' future rotations will be strengthened by much more than simply this year's most-hyped rookie pitcher.

"That team over there is very close to being right there," closer Billy Wagner said of the Nationals, who are using the same blueprint the Braves did during the late 1980s, stockpiling their organization with good young pitchers.

Stammen certainly didn't create the same "wow" factor that led more than 40,000 fans to pack Turner Field on Monday night to view Strasburg. But while limiting the Braves to five hits and two runs in 7 1/3 innings during Tuesday's victory, the lesser-known right-hander gained the satisfaction the rookie phenom was denied one night earlier.

"That's the way he pitched all spring," Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said. "That's why he not only started the year as a starter, [he did so] as our No. 3 starter."

Losing for just the third time in their past 20 home games, the Braves were unable to erase the deficit that was created when Ryan Zimmerman capped a three-run fifth by reaching across the plate to produce an opposite-field ground-rule double that bounced over the right-field wall.

"It was a good pitch," catcher Brian McCann said. "It was down and away, and a little bit off the plate, I think. I don't think he even knew that he hit it, because he stood in the box for a minute. I think he thought he fouled it down the right-field line."

Lowe pitched around a pair of second-inning singles, then proved perfect in both the third and fourth frames. But when he issued his only unintentional walk of the game -- to Cristian Guzman to begin the fifth -- the 37-year-old veteran quickly saw his early one-run advantage erased.

Nyjer Morgan began the three-run fifth inning with a game-tying RBI single to left field, and two batters later, Zimmerman delivered the double that doomed Lowe during what proved to be a 30-pitch frame. The right-hander intentionally walked Guzman to put runners at first and second with one out in the sixth and then surrendered an RBI single to Alberto Gonzalez, who matched a career best with a four-hit performance.

"It wasn't the sharpest game, and they took advantage of it," Lowe said. "It's not that you're not leaving here trying to figure things out. We're well past that. You weren't as sharp as you had liked to be. Just forget about it."

Five days after blanking the White Sox over seven scoreless innings, Lowe found himself allowing four earned runs and eight hits in just 5 2/3 innings. He is now 1-4 with a 5.26 ERA in the seven starts he's made against the Nationals since joining the Braves' rotation last year.

"He pitched a pretty darn good game," manager Bobby Cox said. "He walked Guzman to lead off that inning. That's the only thing. That was the only flaw tonight, to be honest with you."

When Stammen was sent to the Minors earlier this month, he was 1-2 with a 5.43 ERA. The flaws that he showed during that span of 12 starts were seemingly corrected during the three starts he made for Triple-A Syracuse. One of those efforts resulted in a two-hit shutout (a seven-inning game) against the Braves' Triple-A Gwinnett affiliate.

"He pitched a great game," McCann said. "He worked in and worked out. He very rarely missed up. When he was ahead in the count, he buried all of his pitches. You tip your cap to him, and you move on."

Stammen retired seven consecutive hitters before Gregor Blanco singled with one out in the third inning. Two batters later, Martin Prado recorded an RBI triple on a liner to center that took a bad hop and eluded Morgan's glove in center field.

With Phillies second baseman Chase Utley on the disabled list with a sprained right thumb, Prado seems to be the favorite to serve as the National League's starting second baseman at this year's All-Star Game. Prado added a double in the eighth inning that increased his NL-leading multihit games total to 37 and also put him in position to score on a Melky Cabrera double that chased Stammen.

"I don't know whose spot [Stammen] took in the rotation, but he pitched great," Lowe said.

After Lowe exited in the sixth with the Braves facing a three-run deficit, the Nationals increased their lead with Josh Willingham's two-out two-run homer off Peter Moylan in the seventh inning. It marked the first time since Zimmerman christened Nationals Park on March 30, 2008, with a walk-off shot that Moylan allowed an opponent to hit one of his pitches over the outfield wall.

The only other homer Moylan surrendered during this span came on June 9, when Gerardo Parra used a collision between Jason Heyward and Nate McLouth to record an inside-the-park home run.

"[Our bullpen] couldn't hold them for one of the few times this year," Cox said. "We didn't hold them well. We were still in the game."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.