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Braves widen NL East lead

The SportsXchange

WASHINGTON -- The race in the National League East is not officially over, but the Atlanta Braves are running away from the competition.

Justin Upton led off the eighth inning with a tiebreaking home run, and the Braves beat the Washington Nationals 3-2 Monday to extend their winning streak to 11 games.

Atlanta (68-45) won the opener of a three-game series. Washington (54-58) fell a season-high 13 1/2 games back of the Braves in the National League East standings.

"I thought the division (race) would be a lot closer," Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez admitted after the game. "Coming out of spring training, we felt we had a pretty good ballclub."

Upton's 20th homer of the season, his third hit of the game, went just inside the left field foul pole. It came against Washington reliever Tyler Clippard (6-2), who entered the game with a 0.70 ERA since June 4 and was tied for the league lead in wins among relievers.

"You have to score more than they do," said downcast Washington shortstop Ian Desmond, who made a highlight-reel fielding play in the ninth inning. "We didn't score many times."

Freddie Freeman also had three hits for the Braves, whose bullpen has not allowed a run against Washington all year. Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel (34 saves) got the night off after pitching the previous three days, but his teammates came through.

Washington starter Stephen Strasburg went seven innings and allowed five hits, two runs and one walk while striking out nine. He was lifted for pinch hitter Jayson Werth with no outs in the seventh after Scott Hairston led off with a double.

"I settled down and was able to throw first-pitch strikes," said Strasburg, who struck out the side in the first after an error by first baseman Adam LaRoche began the game.

The hit by Hairston chased Atlanta starter Mike Minor, who gave up two runs in six-plus innings. Braves relievers David Carpenter (3-0), Luis Avilan and Jordan Walden (first NL save) got the last nine outs.

"I would say I had my worst stuff," Minor said. "There were a lot of plays where the defense had my back."

Said Gonzalez: "It wasn't his best outing, but he kept us in the game."

Walden ended the game by retiring pinch hitter Chad Tracy on a fly to left with Rendon on third as the potential tying run. Rendon tied the score 2-2 in sixth with a sacrifice fly.

Strasburg drew the ire of home plate umpire Rob Drake as the pitcher started toward the dugout on what he thought was a called third strike to end the top of the second.

Atlanta tied the game at 1-1 in the third on an RBI single to right by Freeman to score Jason Heyward.

The Nationals took a 1-0 lead in the first on a double by Adam LaRoche that scored Desmond, who drew a one-out walk and took third on a single by Wilson Ramos against Minor.

The top three hitters in the Atlanta lineup had seven of the team's eight hits.

The Braves turned two double plays and escaped damage as the Nationals got the lead runner on seven times but went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position.

"A lot of good things happened," said Gonzalez, noting a runner thrown out at the plate in the first and catcher Brian McCann made a nice catch against the screen for the second out in the ninth. "A lot of big outs, all through the game really. We have been doing a pretty good job so far (this season)."

NOTES: The Nationals breathed a sigh of relief that LHP Gio Gonzalez, slated to start Tuesday against the Braves, was not one of the players suspended Monday in the Biogenesis scandal. Gonzalez maintained his innocence during spring training when his name was first connected. In a statement released by the Nationals he said: "I am very pleased that Major League Baseball has cleared my name." Said Washington RHP Tyler Clippard, "I think it is unfortunate he was on the list to begin with." Added manager Davey Johnson: "I believed in him from the get-go." ... Washington 3B Ryan Zimmerman welcomed the suspensions. "It is not fair for other guys to have an advantage like that," he said of using performance-enhancing drugs. ... Washington pitching coach Steve McCatty returned to the team after he was hospitalized a few days last week. He has had high blood pressure in the past, according to published reports. "He is his old irritable self," Johnson said with a grin. ... Fredi Gonzalez said of the MLB suspensions: "It's a good thing. It is a positive step going forward." ... Nationals OF Jayson Werth was named the National League player of the month. He hit .367 with seven homers and 22 RBIs in July. ... The Braves are the second team since 1979 to have two winning streaks of at least 10 games in one season. ... RHP Julio Teheran starts Tuesday for Atlanta in the second game of the series.
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