Braves 5, Nationals 1

The Atlanta Braves gave themselves a glimmer of hope in the NL

East.

Hey, after what happened to these guys a year ago, they’re not

giving up on chasing down the first-place Washington Nationals.

Mike Minor threw six strong innings, Dan Uggla broke it open

with a two-run single and the Braves denied Gio Gonzalez his 20th

win, completing a sweep of Washington with a 5-1 victory Sunday

night. Atlanta closed within 5 1-2 games of the Nationals with a

little over two weeks left in the regular season.

”There’s still a lot of baseball left,” Atlanta manager Fredi

Gonzalez said. ”Who knows what could happen? We’ve just got to

keep playing and keep winning ballgames.”

The Braves certainly know anything is possible. Last season,

they had a double-figure lead in the wild-card race with a month to

go – and blew it. St. Louis passed Atlanta on the final day and

rubbed salt in the wound by winning an improbable World Series

championship.

”Look what happened to us last year,” Uggla said. ”We’re back

in the hunt. We still need a little bit of magic, but we’ll see

what happens.”

Minor (9-10) allowed five hits before turning it over to the

bullpen. The left-hander had an ERA of 6.20 at the end of June, but

he’s pitched brilliantly since then to become a valued member of

the rotation with the playoffs approaching. He had not allowed a

run in his two previous starts, covering 12 2-3 innings, and he

kept the Nationals off the board until the sixth, lowering his ERA

to 4.31.

”I made my goals a little more realistic,” Minor said. ”At

the beginning of the year, I wanted to pitch a shutout or a

no-hitter every time I went out there. Now, I know if I get through

six innings and give up three runs or less, it’s a good day.”

The Braves broke a scoreless tie in the third against Gonzalez

(19-8) on Chipper Jones’ run-scoring single. Freddie Freeman

followed with a sacrifice fly.

Washington closed to 2-1 on Ian Desmond’s RBI single in the

sixth, but the Braves pulled away with a three-run seventh, taking

advantage of an error by third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Michael

Bourn used his speed to score without a ball being hit out of the

infield, and Uggla came through with his two-out hit.

Cory Gearrin, Luis Avilan and Chad Durbin each worked a

scoreless inning to close it out for Atlanta.

The Nationals are still in fairly comfortable position, but the

Braves are at least making the leaders sweat a bit.

”Just turn the page,” Gonzalez said. ”I still feel confident

with my team.”

More noteworthy for Atlanta, the sweep came after three straight

losses in Milwaukee rekindled memories of last year’s collapse. The

Braves maintained a seven-game lead over the second wild-card spot,

held by St. Louis, and are eight games up on the next club in the

race, the Los Angeles Dodgers. It would take a more epic meltdown

than even 2011 to squander that advantage with only 15 games to

go.

”Playing this kind of baseball gives us a chance to achieve the

goal we set in spring training, and that’s to play in a World

Series,” said Jones, who is retiring after the season.

Gonzalez was trying to become the first 20-game winner for the

Montreal-Washington franchise since Ross Grimsley in 1978, when the

team called Canada home. But the Braves ran up his pitch count by

showing patience at the plate, making it difficult for him just to

get through the required five innings.

The left-hander struggled into the sixth, but was lifted after

Jones led off with a walk and Freeman doubled. Craig Stammen got

out of the mess. Uggla popped out, David Ross struck out and

Andrelton Simmons ended the threat with a weak grounder to second

base.

”Obviously Gio had a little problem locating the strike zone,”

manager Davey Johnson said. ”He had a whole bunch of pitches but I

wanted to give him every chance to win 20.”

The Braves blew it open the next inning, using Bourn’s speed and

Zimmerman’s fielding blunder. Bourn walked with one out, then Reed

Johnson hit a chopper to third that bounced off Zimmerman’s left

arm. The ball deflected a few feet away into foul territory, while

Zimmerman looked around desperately, unsure where it was.

He finally spotted it, but not quick enough to get Bourn

hustling into third. Sean Burnett came on to face Jason Heyward,

who grounded to Adam LaRoche at first base. He stepped on the bag

and quickly threw home, but it was a bit up the line, allowing

Bourn to slide around the tag. After Jones was walked intentionally

and Freeman was hit by a pitch, Uggla drove in two more runs with a

single to left.

”We had three tough at-bats when Stammen came in, and mine was

probably the worst,” said Uggla, who swung at a 3-0 pitch that was

probably ball four. ”It was awesome to get another opportunity –

and especially to come through.”

It began raining midway through the game, and there was a slight

delay after the sixth while the grounds crew feverishly worked on

the mound and around the bases, smoothing out some dry dirt. The

showers passed, and the game went on without any further

delays.

Notes: Nationals 2B Danny Espinosa was lifted for a pinch-hitter

in the ninth because of lingering weakness in his left shoulder.

The shoulder has been bothering him for about a week, and he’s

scheduled to see a doctor on Monday, when Washington is off. …

The Nationals outhit the Braves 6-5. … Atlanta will travel to

Miami on Monday to begin a three-game series with the Marlins. Tim

Hudson (14-6) goes against Miami’s Wade LeBlanc (2-4).

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