ATLANTA -- Though the Braves still have a comfortable 6 1/2-game division lead with less than two weeks remaining in the regular season, they were humbled during the final two games of this weekend's series against the Nationals and forced to face the fact that there will be concerns about their rotation depth if they reach the postseason.
One day after Julio Teheran issued a career-high six walks over four innings, Sean Newcomb extended his recent woes while laboring through three innings of Sunday's 6-4 loss to the Nationals at SunTrust Park. The Braves prolonged their recent frustration at home by losing the last two games of this series. But their magic number to clinch the National League East is eight, thanks to a Phillies loss on Sunday, with 13 games to play.
"The last two weeks have been very valuable," Braves manager Brian Snitker. "The whole experience of now is something you can't manufacture. You've got to go through it. They are. We're hanging on. We're doing good."
Snitker's relatively young group has experienced the highs and lows of a postseason race. After being swept by the Red Sox, the Braves won six of seven during a West Coast trip and then extended their winning streak to six games on Friday. But they have now lost 12 of their past 16 home games, a disturbing trend that fortunately hasn't minimized the comfort of their lead over the Phillies in the division race.
Newcomb seemed to right himself when he limited the Giants to one run over six innings on Monday. But as he allowed the Nationals five earned runs and six hits during this uninspiring three-inning effort, the young lefty proved he has not reached the point of his career where he can consistently get ahead of hitters and benefit from his offspeed pitches -- a curveball and slider, which have also too often been inconsistent.
"My last start out there, yeah, I felt good, but it isn't anything that was going to change the course of how everything is going," Newcomb said. "I think I need to keeping it simple by looking at one hitter at a time and not worry as much about what is ahead."
If the Braves were to reach the postseason, they'll have a tough time determining who will fill their rotation beyond Mike Foltynewicz and Kevin Gausman. Anibal Sanchez might be the most likely other candidate. The final spot may go to either Teheran or Newcomb, who has a 7.44 ERA over his past seven starts.
"[Newcomb] has had a really solid season, and he expects to do well," Snitker said. "When things go bad now, it's the next step in the journey. He'll figure it out. He's a bright kid and a good competitor. He's just going to have to take the next step."
Newcomb entered Sunday with a first-pitch strike percentage of 54 -- second-worst among 66 qualified starters -- and then proceeded to record a first-pitch strike against just seven of the 17 batters faced. Consequently, he didn't have many opportunities to maximize the value of what on this day was a mediocre curveball.
Bryce Harper highlighted Washington's three-run first with a two-run homer off an elevated 1-1 fastball. After getting ahead of Harper with a first-pitch fastball in the third, Newcomb followed with two straight curveballs that missed the zone. He walked the former MVP and then surrendered an opposite-field, two-run homer to Anthony Rendon on a first-pitch fastball.
"Being up in the zone is effective for him when offspeed is working," Braves catcher Tyler Flowers said. "But when he has a hard time with the offspeed, it's a little easier to time it up and get some good swings off it."
Even back when Newcomb entered June as a potential All-Star candidate, it seemed he consistently exited starts knowing he didn't have his best stuff. Now, as he nears the end of the season in danger of being left off a potential postseason roster, he is 48 starts into his career and still trying to experience some level of positive consistency.
"I think fastball command is where it all stems from," Newcomb said. "If I'm getting ahead of hitters and getting ahead early, I think I'm in a lot different spot with a lot of those at-bats."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Flowers put the Braves on the board with a line-drive, two-run homer off Tanner Roark in the fourth inning. But after Nick Markakis doubled and Charlie Culberson singled in the sixth to put runners on the corners with one out, the Nats turned to lefty Tim Collins, who struck out Ender Inciarte, and right-hander Wander Suero, who struck out pinch-hitter Lucas Duda in Flowers' spot.
"Yesterday we had a hard time getting anything going offensively and today as well," Snitker said. "We were a hit away from bouncing back into it."
Culberson will return to a bench role when Johan Camargo returns Monday from a four-game absence necessitated by a sore right groin. But Culberson once again made the most of an opportunity when he pulled the Braves within one run with a two-run homer in the eighth against Greg Holland.
Culberson has hit six of his 12 homers against the Nationals in 49 at-bats this season. He entered this season with six homers through 411 career at-bats.
HE SAID IT
"I don't really know how much different it is. I only know it is different because you guys tell us about it all the time. But, I really don't. I don't think anybody really feels any different at home. I think it's just one of those things that is coincidence more than anything." -- Flowers, on the home/road splits of the Braves, who are 38-36 at SunTrust Park and an NL-best 45-30 on the road
Foltynewicz will take the mound when the Braves begin a three-game series against the Cardinals on Monday at 7:35 p.m. ET at SunTrust Park. Foltynewicz has produced a 1.84 ERA while limiting opponents to a .186 batting average over his past eight starts. He struggled in two starts against the Cardinals in 2017, but he limited them to one hit over five innings on July 1. St. Louis will counter with Miles Mikolas, who has a 3.96 ERA over his past six starts.