In what should be a season-long battle of two powerhouse clubs, each with goals even bigger than the N.L. East division in mind, the Braves struck first with a convincing series sweep at Nationals Park. The surging Braves showed the Nats an early glimpse of what they are capable of, that this division may have the two best teams in the National League.
It’s only halfway through April, but a 9-0 drubbing in front of 39,389 fans at Nationals Park sent an early season statement.
“This division got tougher,” Ian Desmond said. “I don’t think there’s going to be a 100-game winner in this division. It’s going to be a battle all year long.”
“We got a good taste of what they’re bringing to the table this year.”
Center fielder Denard Span said the Nats weren’t exactly surprised by what the Braves brought to D.C. this weekend, but perhaps humbled by the resulting sweep.
“They just gave us a good ol’ fashioned kick in the butt,” he said.
“We see where we are now, we know we are a good team. It’s still early in the season but we a lot of work to do.”
On Sunday the Nats were in trouble from the opening pitch. Leadoff hitter B.J. Upton took the first toss of the afternoon for a double into left field. He was then driven in two batters later on an Evan Gattis double. And two hitters after that, Chris Johnson singled up the middle to bring in two runs and begin the game with a 3-0 Atlanta lead.
The Braves blew the door open in the third inning with two home runs. First, Justin Upton led the inning off with a solo shot, then Andrelton Simmons smacked a three-run homer to left field to put the Braves up 7-0.
Seven earned runs later and Gonzalez had his worst day in a Nationals uniform.
“I take the blame on this one 100 percent. I didn’t give these guys a chance to swing it or do anything today,” Gonzalez said.
“Our job, as a pitcher, is you have to go out and maintain that to a minimum, especially give these guys a chance to swing the bat, and I didn’t do that today, obviously.”
Gonzalez lasted five innings and finished with seven earned, seven hits, three walks, and two home runs allowed in the loss. His seven earned runs were his most as a member of the Nationals, but short of his career high of 11.
Gonzalez said his curveball was hanging and the high pitch counts inning after inning left his fastball dipping in velocity. He attributed most of his troubles, however, to not being his usual aggressive self.
“I wasn’t attacking the strike zone. Leaving everything up and falling behind on a good hitting team, that’s all it was – falling behind and giving these guys too much to come back.”
Davey Johnson said Gonzalez’ pitch placement left something to be desired.
“He was leaving the ball up and when he's at his best he's using his fastball down on the knees with his good curveball and changeup. He was missing up all day. That's where he got hurt. The ball's belt high, right over the middle. Good hitting lineup will do that.”
While Gonzalez did not have his best day, Braves lefty Paul Maholm continued his torrid stretch through the beginning of this season. The nine-year veteran tossed 8 2/3 innings with zero runs allowed and has yet to give up a score through 20 2/3 total frames so far this season.
Maholm is all about placement and right now he is hitting his spots.
“For me as a lefty, he changes his arm angle a lot,” Span said. “It’s hard to pick up the ball. All of his pitches move and he just executed all of his pitches today. You could tell he had a game plan and he stuck with it.”
“I think him and Gattis were on the same page all day long,” Desmond said. “He was working efficiently, throwing first pitch strikes and getting ahead. His team gave him a big lead early and that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
The Braves added two more runs in the sixth inning off relief pitcher Zach Duke. They scored one on a Jason Heyward double down the right field line and their final run on a sacrifice fly by Gattis. Duke has allowed seven earned runs and nine hits in his first 4 2/3 innings this season.
The Braves took three games at Nationals Park to extend their current winning streak to nine games. They are the hottest team in baseball and have proven they can beat a good team in the Nats.
Second baseman Danny Espinosa, who left the game after being hit by a pitch, said after Saturday’s loss the Braves are not the better team. On Sunday he re-iterated that sentiment by pointing out this is just the first three games of a long season in which the two teams will meet at least 16 more times.
“I still don’t think that they’re better than us,” he said. They’re hot right now. They’ve come back on some people, they’re playing well, it doesn’t last forever so I’m not worried about it.”
“We’re going to be real confident going into these next 16 games.”
NOTES: Ryan Zimmerman committed a throwing error for the third time in as many games; Adam LaRoche is now 5-for-34 with a .147 average on the year; Danny Espinosa received negative X-rays on his wrist but may miss a few games; Kurt Suzuki had two hits in his first game since Wilson Ramos’ injury