Three Cuts: Braves sweep Nationals behind Harang, homers

Aaron Harang delivered his third straight quality start for the Braves, allowing one run and five hits over six innings to drop his ERA to 0.96.

Daniel Shirey/Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — There was a familiar ring to it all.

The Braves punctuated a three-game sweep of the Nationals with a 10-2 win Sunday at Turner Field, a rout that included three home runs and seven extra-base hits — and one that gave Atlanta another head start on its National League East rival as it seeks another division crown.

A year ago, the Braves won five of their first six vs. Washington in running away with the title. Now they’ve repeated that same April template in beating the Nationals for the 18th time in their last 25 meetings.

"When they gave us an opportunity to score some runs, we did," said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. "We’ve got a couple guys up there who are hot, (Freddie) Freeman and Justin (Upton) and a couple other guys, they came through."

Here are three things we learned from the matchup.

Aaron Harang’s place in the Braves starting staff was opened up by chance, as season-ending surgeries for Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen and the delayed returns of Gavin Floyd, Mike Minor and Ervin Santana created a need for the 35-year-old veteran.

But now Santana is back and Floyd and Minor are that much closer after minor-league starts Sunday as Floyd allowed two hits and two runs (one earned) with Triple-A Gwinnett and Minor went five innings with one hit for Class-A Rome.

Still, with Harang’s unexpected performance, can the Braves afford to keep him out of the rotation?

He limited the Nationals to five hits and one run over six innings, striking out five and walking one. That gives Harang (2-1) a 0.96 ERA in 18 2/3 innings with 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings in three starts and a .191 batting average on balls in play.

"I think the biggest thing is being confident that I can locate my pitches and also keep the hitters off balance," Harang said.

Harang, who joined the Braves on March 24, one day after the Indians informed him he wouldn’t make their Opening Day rotation, has delivered a quality start in each of his first three outings in ’14. That’s his longest such streak since Aug. 7-18, 2012.

"He pitched great," Gonzalez said. "He gave us a great opportunity to win the ball game. He pitched like you’ve seen him pitch before against you and he navigated himself really, really well though a pretty good lineup."

His future likely depends on how the Braves want to handle David Hale and Alex Wood in a staff that will eventually include Santana, Floyd, Minor and Julio Teheran.

Hale, the current fifth starter, has been erratic. He followed five scoreless innings vs. the Nationals on April 4 with a five-hit, three-run outing the 10th against the Mets and could be an option as a long reliever.

Wood, 23, has been brilliant (2-1, 1.89 ERA and 1.105 WHIP) but is being limited to around 170 innings and keeping Harang in the rotation can provide the depth to be creative with Wood, either by putting him in the bullpen or by skipping starts.

With a fastball that’s hovering around 90.5, the highest it’s been with any consistency since ’10 and a ground-ball rate (22.7) that’s nearly 16 percent below his career average.

"I feel good," Harang said. "I fee like I’m able to get on the same page as the catchers, even though the three of them haven’t caught me. To be able to sit back and talk with them and get on the same page is key to having success."

Is it reality? A mirage? Harang certainly looks like a steal of an offseason acquisition so far.

A Gio Gonzalez’s 92-mph fastball ran in, hitting Freddie Freeman on the finger, proving to be among the few things that could limit the damage done by the heart of the Braves’ order.

Freeman stayed in the game, adding an RBI double to go with the two-run home run — his fourth of the year — he hit in the second inning. Cleanup hitter Justin Upton also hit a two-run HR (his fourth in four games) in a 2-for-3 day with two walks and No. 5 hitter Andrelton Simmons added a three-run homer to go along with a first-inning triple.

"We’re talented enough to do this 1-8, the regulars and the guys on the bench," Gonzalez said.

Over the three-game series, the Braves’ Nos. 3-5 hitters — which included Chris Johnson over Simmons for the first two games — went 19 of 37 (.513) with five home runs, five doubles, a triple and 12 RBI.

Arguably the most impressive stretch by that group came in the first inning, which opened with a walk to Jason Heyward and B.J. Upton’s bunt grounder.

Freeman drove a sacrifice fly to right fielder Jason Werth, then Justin Upton followed with a homer and Simmons tripled. The outburst set a tone the Nationals couldn’t match as Atlanta earned its most sizable victory in the series since 9-0 last April 14.

Against the rest of the NL East, Gonzalez has looked every bit a two-time All-Star he is with a 2.71 ERA in a combined 24 starts vs. the Marlins, Mets and Phillies. Facing the Braves, though, has been another story.

Gonzalez lasted six innings, allowing nine hits and six runs, giving him a 5.75 ERA and 1.527 WHIP in his last six outings vs. the Braves, who he last beat on July 1, 2012.

He’s certainly not alone in his struggles, as Washington’s starters had a collective 9.39 ERA in the series, but the sheer volume of damage the Braves did against Gonzalez certainly made it stick out.

He gave up the homers to Upton and Freeman, triples by Simmons and Tyler Pastornicky and Heyward doubled. Those five extra-base hits tied the career high Gonzalez set against the Twins on July 20, 2009 and would tie July 31, 2013 vs. the Tigers and Aug. 23 that same year against the Royals.

Gonzalez’s recent resume vs. the Braves included rough first innings, with pitch counts of 28, 29, 16, 12 and 22 in his previous five starts — and it continued with another rocky start Sunday.

It took Gonzalez 26 pitches to get out of the inning, as he allowed a leadoff walk to Heyward before Freeman, Upton and Simmons did the real damage.

Things didn’t get any better in a 17-pitch second, as Heyward scored Pastornicky after his triple and Freeman added a two-run blast, his fourth of the year, to give the Braves a 6-0 lead.

At least Gonzalez has this to look forward to: with a normal five-day’s rest, his next outing would come vs. the Cardinals, who he has a 1.13 ERA against in his career.