"I wish we were the ones competing for the playoffs, but since we're not at least we get in that atmosphere," manager Jim Riggleman said before the start of a three-game series against Braves. "I think it's good for our young player to be in these situations and we're going to take the games very seriously."
But to impact the pennant race, the Nationals need to get out of their funk and fast. On Monday night they didn't look much like the team that had split its previous 12 games against the Braves and beaten Derek Lowe three times.
Cuban right-hander Yunesky Maya, making his second Major League start, committed two balks in a four-run second inning and the Nationals couldn't recover, suffering a 4-0 setback at Turner Field for their sixth straight loss.
Lowe (13-12) struck out a career-high 12 over eight innings and walked none while allowing six hits, showing no signs of the sore elbow that forced him to miss a start recently.
"He pitched really well," said Ian Desmond, who struck out three times against Lowe and fanned a fourth time in the ninth as Braves closer Billy Wagner struck out the side. "He was working quick and keeping you off balance."
It was the 12th time the Nats have been shut out this season and they have scored just 10 runs during the losing streak. Against Lowe, they were overmatched.
"Our hitters came back and to a man said, 'This is as good as we've seen,'" Riggleman said. "He knew what the umpire was giving him and he kept putting it there. He was putting it there where [Greg] Maddux used to put it and [Tom] Glavine used to put it. He got those calls [on the outside corner]."
"That's as good as I've ever seen Derek," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He threw a ton of strikes. He hit with all of his pitches. I mean right there. I can't say enough about that performance."
Maya (0-2) had a rough first inning in his debut against the Mets last Tuesday. This time, the trouble didn't come until the second. He walked Brian McCann and Derrek Lee, then things unraveled with Nate McLouth at the plate.
Maya committed two balks with just one pitch in between, forcing in a run. Unnerved, the right-hander gave up a double to McLouth. Matt Diaz plated McLouth with a triple and scored himself on a single by Omar Infante.
The balks were obvious and the Nationals didn't argue. "No explanation needed. He balked," Riggleman said. "He just flinched at little bit. ... There was a little indecision ... and instead of stepping off, he balked."
With teammate Joel Peralta as an interpreter, Maya said he "rushed" and balked because he "couldn't see the signs."
Maya has struggled with runners on, saying he's been "trying to spot the ball and missing pitches" while "rushing to make everything perfect."
Maya made it through the sixth without allowing any more scoring and impressed Riggleman with his competitiveness. He allowed five hits, walked three and hit a batter while striking out two.
Lowe was 0-3 with a 6.11 ERA against Washington previously this season, but it wasn't as if he'd been pounded by the Nationals.
"I don't know if we've had his number," Riggleman said before the game. "With a ground-ball pitcher, if you make contact, it really becomes luck after that. Sometimes the ball finds a hole."
Washington had trouble making contact at all this time. After a leadoff single by Danny Espinosa, Lowe struck out the next four batters and reached 1,500 for his career when Desmond fanned to begin the fourth inning. Seven more strikeouts were to come.
"These games unfortunately don't come around as often as you would like," Lowe said. "It's one of those games where you feel like you're pretty much in control the whole way. That's about the best game that I've pitched in a long time."
Lowe didn't use his sinker as much as usual, instead turning to his breaking stuff.
"He pitched me a little different," said Desmond, who had feasted on Lowe previously this season.
"This was probably the most breaking balls that I've thrown in a long, long time," Lowe said.
After the three games in Atlanta, the Nationals play three at Philadelphia this weekend before facing the Braves and Phillies in Washington on Sept. 24-29. The Nationals are 5-7 against the Phils this season.
"You are not going to get the respect around the league ... until you start winning some games," Riggleman said.
The manager was talking about the pitches that were called against the Nationals, but he may have been referring to a lot more than that.
Guy Curtwright is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.