ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves gave themselves a glimmer of hope in the NL East.
Hey, after what happened to these guys a year ago, they’re not giving up on chasing down the first-place Washington Nationals.
Mike Minor threw six strong innings, Dan Uggla broke it open with a two-run single and the Braves denied Gio Gonzalez his 20th win, completing a sweep of Washington with a 5-1 victory Sunday night. Atlanta closed within 5 1-2 games of the Nationals with a little over two weeks left in the regular season.
“There’s still a lot of baseball left,” Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “Who knows what could happen? We’ve just got to keep playing and keep winning ballgames.”
The Braves certainly know anything is possible. Last season, they 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.”
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.
The Nationals are still in fairly comfortable position, but the Braves are at least making the leaders sweat a bit.
“Just turn the page,” Gonzalez said. “I still feel confident with my team.”
More noteworthy for Atlanta, the sweep came 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,” said Jones, who is retiring after the season.
Gonzalez was trying to become the first 20-game winner for the Montreal-Washington franchise since Ross Grimsley in 1978, when the team called Canada home. But the Braves ran up his pitch count by showing patience at the plate, making it difficult for him just to get through the required five innings.
The left-hander struggled into the sixth, but was lifted after Jones led off with a walk and Freeman doubled. Craig Stammen got out of the mess. Uggla popped out, David Ross struck out and Andrelton Simmons ended the threat with a weak grounder to second base.
“Obviously Gio had a little problem locating the strike zone,” manager Davey Johnson said. “He had a whole bunch of pitches but I wanted to give him every chance to win 20.”
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.
“We had three tough at-bats when Stammen came in, and mine was probably the worst,” said Uggla, who swung at a 3-0 pitch that was probably ball four. “It was awesome to get another opportunity — and especially to come through.”
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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