WASHINGTON -- As Brandon Beachy neared the end of an impressive rookie season, he provided more reminders that he is still learning to pitch and dealing with the sometimes cruel initiation process young pitchers must experience.
Unfortunately for Beachy, some of the cruelest parts of his initiation process have occurred over the course of the past couple of weeks, as he's pitched amid the pressure that has built as the Braves struggle to preserve their lead in the National League Wild Card race.
Beachy issued a couple of costly walks and received little offensive support as the Braves suffered a 4-1 loss at Nationals Park on Saturday afternoon.
"Everybody came in here with a positive attitude and we felt like we were going to put up some runs today," said Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman. "It just didn't happen. It was just one of those things."
Freeman's fifth-inning leadoff home run off Nationals starter Chien-Ming Wang accounted for the Braves' only run as they suffered their 14th loss in 22 games. As the Braves were struggling to overcome the mistakes Beachy made during a decisive three-run fourth inning, the Cardinals were taking advantage of three Carlos Marmol walks in a wild ninth that gave them a 2-1 walk-off win over the Cubs.
The comeback pulled the Cardinals within two games of the Braves in the Wild Card race. Atlanta's magic number to clinch remains at three with four games to play.
"We've got to win ballgames," said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. "It's nice to watch the scoreboard and all of that. But we've got to win the games that are in front of us."
If the Braves and Cardinals conclude the regular season with identical records, they would play a one-game playoff in St. Louis on Thursday to decide who would qualify as the Wild Card entrant. Beachy is on schedule to pitch that game.
But as things stand, Beachy's regular season came to a close in allowing the Nationals four earned runs and issued four walks in six innings. Outfielder Jayson Werth scored twice after drawing walks issued by the 25-year-old pitcher, who suffered his first loss since issuing a season-high five walks on July 19.
"All year, I've been living on the edge," Beachy said. "I've been getting behind guys and throwing too many pitches. It's really caught up to me these last three starts."
Whatever transpires over the course of the next couple of weeks, this has been a successful first season for Beachy, who is nearing what would his first career playoff start as the second-best option in the Braves' injury-depleted rotation. He has posted a 3.68 ERA in 25 starts, and his 169 strikeouts rank as the most recorded by a Braves rookie since 1990.
But Beachy has allowed four earned runs in each of his past three starts. He had allowing three earned runs or fewer in 18 of his first 22 starts.
"I already know in my head how to fix some of the things I've been doing," Beachy said. "It's just a matter of going out there and doing it. There are a lot of positives I can take from today, a lot of positive pitches. I'm just going to try to move forward and be ready."
Coming off a rough outing in which he issued five walks and lasted just 4 1/3 innings against the Mets, Beachy seemed to be in command as he struck out three of the first four batters he faced Saturday, and a total of seven through the first three innings. But things started to unravel after he issued consecutive one-out walks in the second inning to set the stage for Chris Marrero's RBI single that scored Werth with the game's first run.
Beachy proved to be his own enemy again in the decisive three-run fourth. After issuing his second walk to Werth, he uncorked a wild pitch that put runners at second and third base with just one out. Danny Espinosa followed with a two-run single.
Wang added injury to insult when he sneaked an RBI single past the first-base bag -- his first Major League hit after 32 fruitless at-bats.
"At times, I feel really good," Beachy said. "I feel dominant and feel like everything I throw up there is going where I want it to. Then the next batter, all of the sudden, it's gone. I just have to find that consistency."
Freeman's fifth-inning home run stood as Wang's only costly mistake. The veteran pitcher did gain some fortune in the third inning, when former Braves outfielder Rick Ankiel ran to deep center field and made an over-the-shoulder catch to deny Michael Bourn of what would have likely been an RBI triple.
When Wang exited after the sixth inning, the Braves remained silent. Bourn's eighth-inning single put runners on the corners with just one out, but with Martin Prado at the plate and Chipper Jones on deck, the speedy center fielder was thrown out attempting to steal second base.
"We've got four games left and a two-game lead," Freeman said. "We were scoreboard watching. We saw [the Cubs] lose. But it's just one of those things. We have to take care of business and not worry about [the Cardinals]."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.