WASHINGTON -- Braves starter Paul Maholm really made only two bad pitches during his seven-inning stint Tuesday night. But the value of those miscues increased because Stephen Strasburg was the opposing pitcher.
When Strasburg pitches well, that leaves an opponent very little room for error. Maholm's two mistakes gave the Nationals four runs. That proved more than enough for Strasburg and Washington to beat the Braves for a second straight night, 4-1, before 33,888 at Nationals Park.
Strasburg allowed only one run on four hits in six innings. He struck out 10 -- all of which came in the first five innings -- and shook off a 51-minute rain delay in the third inning, keeping the Braves (70-53) quiet on offense as they lost their fourth straight. Washington (77-46) now leads Atlanta by seven games in the National League East.
"He was on with everything, [his] fastball, and he threw some changeups that had almost split-finger-type, forkball-type action on it," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He was good."
Strasburg improved to 15-5 on the season, and his ERA dropped to 2.65. The Braves had hit him well in past games as Strasburg entered this contest with a 2-3 career record and a 4.70 ERA against Atlanta.
But Strasburg was in command this time, and the Braves saw it and knew it.
"He had that look in his eye early in the game," said Chipper Jones, although he didn't play. "He knew he had his stuff."
Strasburg pitched very well after the rain delay. The Braves got hits in each of the first two innings, but Strasburg seemed to settle in after break.
"The adrenaline kind of died down, and I went out there and felt like I was really catching my groove," Strasburg said.
That gave Maholm even less room for error, and his two main ones proved too costly on a night when the Braves' offense, struggling in recent games, again couldn't get started.
Maholm gave up four runs on seven hits in his seven innings. He struck out six and walked just one during his start. Of the 100 pitches Maholm threw, he'd like to have back the one he gave to Ian Desmond in the second and the fifth-inning pitch to Jesus Flores.
Desmond blasted a solo homer that gave Washington an early 1-0 lead in that second inning. Flores then broke the game open with a three-run shot which just made it over the left-field wall to give the Nationals a 4-0 lead.
Gonzalez and Maholm talked after the game about the decision to actually pitch to Flores. There were runners on second and third with one out, and Strasburg up next. Even if they intentionally walked Flores and got Strasburg out -- not an easy task since he came into the game hitting .293 -- the Braves would then see leadoff hitter Jayson Werth with the bases loaded.
Werth had a .375 average (9-for-24) against Maholm heading into this game. The Braves faced some not-so-easy options in this situation, which is what Gonzalez talked about when asked if they discussed all of this on the bench.
"Of course, that's what we get paid for," Gonzalez said. "There's consideration there. Strasburg is not an easy out also. And you've got a guy behind him who wears [Maholm] out, in Werth.
Maholm said he tried to throw a cutter in on Flores, hitting for a .220 average with three homers before this contest. But Maholm hung the pitch, and the Washington catcher sent it a long way.
"Whenever you throw a cutter and it doesn't cut, it's kind of a BP fastball," Maholm said. "Just a bad pitch. Sometimes they foul them. Sometimes they take them. Unfortunately, tonight it went for a homer."
The Braves got one run back in the sixth when Martin Prado doubled, went to third on Jason Heyward's single and scored on a Freddie Freeman sacrifice fly.
They threatened again versus Sean Burnett in the eighth and closer Tyler Clippard in the ninth. Atlanta put runners on first and second with one out in the eighth. Reed Johnson singled and moved to second when Burnett hit Michael Bourn. But Burnett then got Prado to bounce back to him, and the pitcher started a 1-6-3 double play.
Heyward started the ninth with a single, stole second and moved to third when Clippard booted a Freeman grounder. But Clippard then retired the next three batters to seal the victory.
The Nationals have spent the first two games of this series coming through with key hits at the right time. Add the pitching of someone like Strasburg in there, and any Atlanta mistake proves that much more costly.
"That's just a solid ballclub over there, and they [make you] play a perfect game to beat them," Jones said. "We haven't done it yet."
Jeff Seidel is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.