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Late error costs Braves in Game 2

Late error costs Braves in Game 2

ATLANTA -- Andruw Jones began a long day by moving another step toward legitimizing himself as a top candidate to win this year's National League Most Valuable Player Award. He ended it by standing helplessly on deck and feeling the same frustration as each of his teammates.

After staging a comeback that put them in position to sweep a doubleheader at Turner Field on Wednesday night, the Braves allowed the Nationals to steal a run in the ninth inning and claim a 4-3 victory in the nightcap.

"Losing the second game like that, it kind of feels like we got swept today," said Adam LaRoche, who was Atlanta's only starting infielder in the game for the final six innings of the nightcap.

Jones' five-RBI performance in the first game prevented any chance of being swept. But the errant throw rookie catcher Brian McCann made to third base in the ninth inning of the nightcap proved to be enough to prevent the completion of the sweep.

"I tried to hurry my throw up and it just sailed on me," said McCann, who entered as a defensive replacement for Johnny Estrada in the eighth inning. "My job is to go in and catch, and I just didn't do that."

Brad Wilkerson began Washington's ninth with a single off Chris Reitsma and advanced to second base on a sacrifice bunt. Attempting to nail him stealing third, McCann sailed his throw out of third baseman Marcus Giles' reach and into left field. The throwing error allowed Wilkerson to trot home with what proved to be the winning run.

Giles was forced to play third base for the first time since Sept. 29, 2002, because Chipper Jones exited after the third inning with a stomach virus. Jones' first-inning sacrifice fly provided Atlanta's first run in the nightcap.

"That was a tough loss," LaRoche said. "Unfortunately, we've had quite a few of those this year where we probably should've shut the door. It's the time of the year when you're tired, when you're mentally drained, and it's who wants it more."

After splitting the doubleheader, the Braves have a four-game lead over the second-place Phillies. With such a small gap, they realize they have no room for the amount of missed opportunities they've had over the past two nights.

In Tuesday night's series opener against the Nationals, a one-run loss was the result of the Braves stranding 13 runners and going just 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position. The blame for their latest one-run setback had to be pointed at more people than McCann.

Wilson Betemit capped a career-best four-hit performance with a game-tying RBI single off Mike Stanton with two outs in the eighth. It scored Giles and almost plated LaRoche. But Jose Guillen's strong throw from right field retired the Braves first baseman as he was sliding into home plate.

Although they scored a run in both the seventh and eighth innings against Livan Hernandez, the Braves could have done more damage. Newly acquired Todd Hollandsworth, who was making his first start for the Braves in right field, got caught off second base with nobody out and two on in the seventh inning.

The Braves began the seventh with consecutive singles from Hollandsworth, Estrada and Betemit. They also got pinch-hitter Jeff Francoeur to load the bases with a five-pitch walk. But their only run in the inning came when Pete Orr beat out a potential double-play grounder that Vinny Castilla fielded and threw wide of first base.

"I thought we were going to win two ballgames there at the end of this one," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "We had runners out there. We just messed up a baserunning mistake and couldn't get the big hit again."

In the end, the Braves' eighth-inning comeback only furthered the frustrations of Hernandez, who allowed three earned runs and 10 hits in 7 1/3 innings. He hasn't beaten Atlanta in the regular season since Aug. 18, 2000 -- a span of 14 starts.

There were even better developments, like Jones' offense and the pitching performances the Braves got from starters Horacio Ramirez and John Thomson. In his most impressive outing since ending a three-month stint on the disabled list, Thomson allowed two earned runs and completed six innings in the nightcap.

"I thought he did a great job," Cox said. "He's getting back on track now."

While Thomson, who had lasted just 3 2/3 innings in each of his previous two starts, credited his success on blocking out any thoughts of his previously injured finger, Ramirez subdued the Nationals with his newly discovered curveball. During a strong seven-inning effort in the first game, he allowed three earned runs and eight hits in seven innings.

"My pitches have just been coming around the last three or four starts," said Ramirez, who is 2-1 with a 2.73 ERA in his past four starts. "My curveball's starting to come around a little bit, which I haven't thrown in a very long time, and it should be another weapon for me."

As for Jones, he's been a weapon for the Braves throughout the past three months. His three-run first-inning home run in the opener upped his Major League-leading homer total to 43. His National League-leading 108 RBIs are eight short of his career-high total.

When Giles grounded out to end the nightcap, Jones was standing on deck looking to add to his impressive statistics. But he wouldn't be given the chance on yet another night when the Braves could not take advantage of numerous opportunities.

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

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