Nationals-Braves Preview


The Washington Nationals could have basically ended the NL East race this weekend.

The second-place Atlanta Braves could be right back in it with another win.

Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez will try to become the majors' first 20-game winner - and match a franchise record for victories - on Sunday night when these clubs finish the season series.

Leading Atlanta (83-63) by 8 1/2 games heading into this weekend set at Turner Field, the Nationals (89-56) are no longer running away with the division following back-to-back one-run defeats.

After scoring the winning run on a ninth-inning throwing error in Friday's 2-1 victory, Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons' bases loaded walk in the eighth inning Saturday forced in the deciding run.

Washington's magic number to clinch the East remains 11 following Saturday's 5-4 loss.

"I mean have they won the division yet?'' Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said after homering. "No, they haven't, so obviously we do (have a chance).''

The Nationals, though, might have a better chance Sunday with Gonzalez (19-7, 2.93 ERA) taking the ball.

Now the team's undisputed ace with Stephen Strasburg shut down for the year, the southpaw has a 0.41 ERA while winning each of his last three starts. Gonzalez could match the team record for wins set by Ross Grimsley in 1978.

"He's been unbelievable all year long," shortstop Ian Desmond told the Nationals' official website. "... I'd give him the Cy Young right now."

Gonzalez, though, has no interest in discussing postseason awards. His concern, along with helping the Nationals franchise make the playoffs for the first time since the Montreal Expos won the East in 1981, is finding his control after walking a season high-tying five in Monday's 5-1 win at New York.

He looked more like the Oakland pitcher who led the AL in walks per nine innings in 2010 and 2011 than the one who's found his control in 2012.

"Couldn't find the strike zone,'' said Gonzalez, who leads the majors with a .206 opponents batting average. "Drank a little too much coffee. I don't know what it was.''

The Braves know that they have one more chance to face the Nationals this season and they don't want to waste the opportunity.

"(Washington) is the No. 1 team in the National League,'' Freeman said. "We're playing them tough. We've beaten them twice now, so we've got a chance to sweep them tomorrow.''

Atlanta, winner of four straight and six of seven at home, will give the ball to Mike Minor (8-10, 4.42) on Sunday.

The left-hander has thrown 12 2-3 shutout innings in his last two starts, but he has just one win during that stretch as the Braves have totaled two runs.

"It seems like there's always one guy on a staff who doesn't get run support,'' manager Fredi Gonzalez said after Minor went 5 2-3 innings in Monday's 4-1 loss at Milwaukee. "And, that's Mike. He really battled, but had to throw (a career-high) 115 pitches.''

Minor, 1-0 with a 7.20 ERA in two starts versus Washington in 2012, could be throwing to David Ross after Brian McCann left Saturday with tendinitis in his right hamstring.

Nationals right fielder Michael Morse could miss a fourth straight game with an injured left wrist.

Braves right fielder Jason Heyward is batting .423 (11 for 26) during a six-game hitting streak against Washington after hitting his team-leading 27th homer Saturday.

If these teams don't meet in the playoffs, Sunday will be the last time Chipper Jones faces Washington. He's a .298 hitter with 41 homers and 160 RBIs against the Nationals franchise.