ATLANTA – The Washington Nationals are still in fairly comfortable position.
But the Atlanta Braves are intent on making the NL East leaders sweat a bit down the stretch.
Mike Minor pitched six strong innings, Dan Uggla broke it open with a two-run single and Gio Gonzalez was denied his 20th win as the Braves completed a three-game sweep, beating the Nationals 5-1 on Sunday night.
Washington's lead is down to 5½ games after the lost weekend in Atlanta, but the Nationals are still confident about wrapping up the division over the next 2½ weeks.
"Just turn the page," Gonzalez said. "I still feel confident with our team."
Manager Davey Johnson gave Gonzalez every chance to become the first 20-game winner for the Montreal-Washington franchise since Ross Grimsley in 1978, when the team still called Canada home.
But the Braves showed plenty of patience at the plate, taking pitches or fouling them off, forcing Gonzalez to throw 83 pitches over the first three innings. He staggered into the sixth, trailing 2-1, and was lifted after the first two Atlanta hitters reached.
"Obviously Gio had a little problem locating the strike zone," Johnson said. "He had a whole bunch of pitches, but I wanted to give him every chance to win 20."
Last season, the Braves 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, which swept the Nationals 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," Jones said.
Gonzalez was lifted after Jones led off with a walk and Freeman doubled. As the pitcher left the mound, he tipped his cap toward the retiring Jones, who was at third base.
"It's an honor to play on the same field, especially in his house," Gonzalez said. "It was my way of saying thank you for letting me be on the same field you play on."
Craig Stammen got out of the mess, keeping the score at 2-1. Uggla popped out, David Ross struck out and Andrelton Simmons ended the threat with a weak grounder to second base.
But 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.
"It was awesome to get another opportunity — and especially to come through," Uggla said.
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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