Instant analysis: Braves 5, Nats 1

Instant analysis: Braves 5, Nats 1
September 17, 2012, 3:19 am
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Game in a nutshell: The Nationals entered the weekend hoping to deliver a knockout punch to the Braves but knowing they'd still find themselves in great shape if they could just win one of three games. After dropping the first two by one run a piece, they suddenly found themselves in a must-win situation on Sunday Night Baseball. They couldn't get the job done. Gio Gonzalez labored his way through five-plus innings and departed without a chance to earn his 20th win. The previously red-hot lineup was again thwarted by Atlanta's pitching staff, starting with left-hander Mike Minor. And the Nats' bullpen and defense betrayed them late, allowed three insurance runs in the bottom of the seventh despite the Braves recording only one hit in the inning. All of a sudden, their 8 12-game lead is down to 5 12. With only 16 games to play, they're still in a highly advantageous position. But the division title won't come so easy anymore. And should these two teams meet again in October, the Braves will feel plenty confident about their chances to win a head-to-head series.

Hitting lowlight: They didn't give themselves many opportunities, but they squandered what few they had. Never was that more apparent than in the top of the fourth, when with two on and one out, Danny Espinosa stepped to the plate and grounded into a 6-4-3 double play on the first pitch he saw from Minor. That actually proved to be one of Espinosa's more productive at-bats of the series, if only because he made contact. After making a quick, cross-country trip to Arizona for his grandmother's funeral on Thursday, he looked completely out of sync at the plate this weekend. Espinosa's final batting line for the series: 0-for-11, nine strikeouts, one double play grounded into, one pop-out.

Pitching lowlight: With a chance to become the majors' first 20-game winner -- and to do it on a national stage -- Gonzalez labored from the start and couldn't recover until it was too late. He fell behind hitters, then watched as the Braves fouled off everything in sight. The left-hander went to a three-ball count on eight of the first 14 hitters he faced, walking three of them. He needed 83 pitches to complete three innings, and at that point it looked like he might not even complete the minimum five innings required to qualify for the win. Then a couple of 1-2-3 frames got Gonzalez back on track and left him at 103 pitches entering the sixth. Davey Johnson could have been satisfied with that but he decided to give his starter one more chance. That proved costly, because Gonzalez opened the sixth with a walk and a towering double, ultimately getting the hook after that.

Key stat: There have been 21 20-win seasons in Washington baseball history. Twelve of them were recorded by Walter Johnson between 1910-25.

Up next: After a late-night flight home, the Nationals will enjoy a day off before opening a three-game series against the wild-card-contending Dodgers. Right-handers Jordan Zimmermann and Aaron Harang are scheduled to start Tuesday's opener at 7:05 p.m.