ATLANTA -- When this week began, the Braves were looking forward to the weekend's division battle against the Nationals. Now, they are simply waiting to mercifully put to rest the agonizing span that has followed.
On Saturday at Turner Field, just when it seemed like things could not get worse for the Braves, Mike Minor surrendered another costly home run, Kris Medlen incurred more damage, and Jonny Venters provided another reason to wonder when he might regain his dominant form.
After a slumbering, injury-depleted lineup showed enough life to erase an early deficit against Stephen Strasburg, Medlen surrendered three extra-base hits in a two-run sixth inning that proved decisive for the Nationals in an 8-4 win over the Braves.
"When you play 162 games, some of these games and some things like this happen," Braves center fielder Michael Bourn said. "You just have to continue to work at it and try to play hard and grind it out."
Since taking two of three from the Rays in St. Petersburg last weekend, the Braves have endured a six-game losing streak that has put them three games behind the first-place Nationals in the National League East race. It is Atlanta's longest skid since experiencing a nine-game losing streak in April 2010.
Less than 24 hours after putting Chipper Jones on the disabled list, the Braves were forced to scratch Freddie Freeman from Saturday's start because of lingering vision problems. Brian McCann missed a fifth consecutive start because of a virus, but he did pop out during a game-ending pinch-hit appearance.
"I don't want to use anything as an excuse," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "We've got to be the best team that's lost six in a row in the Major Leagues right now, and that's the way I feel."
Dan Uggla provided the Braves hope when he drilled a game-tying, two-run home run with two outs in the fifth inning against Stephen Strasburg. But after entering to relieve Mike Minor, Medlen quickly killed the momentum. Ian Desmond doubled to begin the decisive sixth inning, and scored two batters later on Chad Tracy's pinch-hit double.
Former Brave Rick Ankiel got into the act when he capped the two-run sixth with a two-out triple that Bourn admittedly botched as he and the baseball seemingly hit the center-field wall at about the same time.
While Bourn's blunder was a physical mistake, Jason Heyward drew boos from the home crowd when he nonchalantly fielded a sharp single that an alert Bryce Harper stretched to second with his "old school" hustle.
"You know, that is a heads-up play. Heyward went after it kind of nonchalantly," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said.
Harper did not score during the inning, and the play likely would not have drawn attention when the Braves owned the National League's second-best winning percentage as recently as Monday. But now, as they sit in fourth place in their own division, even a momentary lack of hustle will stir an uncomfortable fan base.
"[Heyward] made a mistake," Bourn said. "He owned up to it. There is nothing you can do about it. He's human. We make mistakes even when we're not trying to. He plays hard every day. He gives it all he has every day."
The sixth inning extended the sudden troubles experienced by Medlen, who had surrendered a Devin Mesoraco grand slam during his previous outing on Thursday in Cincinnati. The versatile right-hander has allowed five hits and three earned runs in his past 1 2/3 innings. He had allowed four hits and one run in the nine innings that had preceded this rough stretch.
Still the bullpen concerns are focused on Venters, who has posted a 7.27 ERA in the 11 appearances he has made since exiting April without allowing a run. His troubles were extended when Harper opened the seventh inning with an opposite-field line drive home run.
This was the first home run Venters has allowed pitching at Turner Field, but the third he has surrendered overall in his past six innings. The 27-year-old left-hander surrendered three home runs during the only 182 1/3 innings he had completed before this span.
"It's just like hitters, they go through slumps and they go through some bad times," Gonzalez said. "The best thing you can do as a manager or a pitching coach is keep running them out there."
Despite the fact that Minor has posted 9.94 ERA in his past six starts, Gonzalez seemed to indicate that the lefty would stay in the rotation for at least one more start. The struggling young southpaw surrendered a costly three-run home run to Danny Espinosa in the second inning, but then kept the National scoreless during the remainder of his five-inning outing.
Minor retired the first two batters he faced in the second, then allowed consecutive two-out singles to Jesus Flores and Strasburg. The first-pitch changeup he then threw to Espinosa resulted in the 14th home run he has surrendered in his past six starts.
"It's supposed to be my best pitch," Minor said. "I went back and looked at the video. For an 0-0 changeup, it wasn't that bad of a pitch. But they've got scouting reports, and know how many times I throw it. I know that guy is an ambush guy. He's always a first-pitch swinger. I guess he guessed right, or just has that good of a swing and ran into it."
Accounting for the significant absences in their lineup, it is easy to say the Braves have run into a string of bad luck. But making excuses will not keep them from falling further behind the Nationals.
"I think every team is going to go through stuff like this," Medlen said. "We started [the season] 0-4 and got over that. We're 0-for-6 right now. We've just got to minimize damage."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.