ATLANTA -- The Nationals had a chance this weekend to punch their postseason ticket, remove any thought of the Braves coming back in the division race and use the spotlight of Sunday night baseball to show the country what the team with the Majors' best record has put together this season.
But Washington did none of that at Turner Field as Atlanta completed a three-game sweep with a 5-1 win Sunday, although the Nats will still head home with a 5 1/2-game lead in the National League East and a chance to clinch at least a Wild Card spot in their upcoming series against the Dodgers.
"It's over with. It's not the way we drew it up, but the good thing is all the work we've done up until now, we're still [5 1/2 games] up on it," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "It would've been nice to just take one and not fall so far behind, but we're still in the driver's seat."
Indeed, as LaRoche said, very little went the way Washington planned it this weekend, and Sunday's loss served as an example. The Nationals walked too many batters, as Gio Gonzalez did in his first attempt to get his 20th win. They made a few too many errors in the field, as Ryan Zimmerman did in the seventh inning. And they couldn't push enough runners into scoring position, much less get enough hits in those situations.
"You can't do that," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "We've been pretty good about that all year, but I don't know what brings it on."
"You like to leave a sour taste in the other team's mouth when they're leaving," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "We know that on a nightly basis we can stand toe to toe with them. It's just they've played more consistently through 155-60 games against the rest of the league better than we have."
Gonzalez trudged through the first three innings, firing 83 pitches to catcher Kurt Suzuki to record nine outs against 15 batters. Gonzalez bounced back admirably, working two quick innings to pitch into the sixth, but it wasn't enough.
The lefty managed to get through the first two innings unscathed despite throwing 50 pitches. But he finally yielded two runs in the third inning on an RBI single by Jones and a sacrifice fly by Freddie Freeman. Gonzalez didn't make any excuses, saying he simply couldn't find the strike zone and crediting Atlanta's hitters for fouling off pitches and working deep counts.
"I think that's where my biggest mistake today was -- I wasn't being as aggressive in the first three innings," Gonzalez said. "Then the next two, it was exactly what I should've been doing off the bat."
Gonzalez recovered about as well as possible, retiring the next six batters in order on 20 pitches, providing at least a glimmer of hope that he could stick around long enough to become eligible for win No. 20. Gonzalez said the change was all about carrying more confidence with him to the mound, something veteran Mark DeRosa encouraged him to do after the third inning.
"Once he said that, it kind of switched, just turned it on," Gonzalez said. "It [just] started a little too late for me. Kind of smiling, I told Mark, 'Where were you in the first inning?'"
Gonzalez came back out for the sixth with a one-run deficit amid the steady rain, putting runners on second and third with no outs. He gave way to reliever Craig Stammen, who retired three straight batters without letting a run score.
But the Nationals' bullpen couldn't hold off the Braves. Atlanta pushed across three unearned runs on just one hit in the seventh. Michael Bourn hustled to third on a rare misplayed ground ball by Zimmerman at third base. With Sean Burnett pitching in relief of Stammen, Jason Heyward bounced a grounder to LaRoche, who stepped on first for one out but threw wide of Suzuki at home, allowing Bourn to safely slide in to put the Braves up by two.
Burnett then walked Jones and hit Freeman with a pitch to load the bases, and the Braves scored two more as Dan Uggla bashed a single to left field, giving Atlanta a four-run lead and once again making the Nationals pay for their mistakes.
"[If] I try and roll it the conventional way and we don't get him, that's a run," LaRoche said. "Got some fast guys on the bases, so close to first, try and touch it and go home. Just kind of pulled it up the line. I think if I put it on the money, we've probably got him."
Washington, meanwhile, couldn't get anything going at the plate. The Nationals didn't get a runner past second base until the sixth and whiffed on several scoring opportunities, going 1-for-5 with runners in scoring position on the night and 3-for-15 in the series.
But there was still no panic inside the Washington clubhouse, although there was some concern for injured regulars like Michael Morse and Danny Espinosa. While the Nationals left a lot on the table this weekend at Turner Field, they're confident that they've done more than enough to this point to lose sight of their goals.
"We're fine. We've put ourselves in a good position, and that's a good team over there," Zimmerman said. "It was a good series, and they got a couple more hits than we did. But we've put ourselves in a great position. We've played well all year. There's two weeks left of playing baseball. Everything's right in front of us."