ATLANTA -- One year after enduring an epic late-season collapse, the Braves have experienced a much more enjoyable journey through September. In the process, they have given the Nationals something to think about during the regular season's final weeks and beyond.
Mike Minor rose to the occasion in the biggest start of his young career, and a patient offense frustrated Gio Gonzalez as the Braves completed a three-games series sweep with a 5-1 win over the Nationals on Sunday night at Turner Field.
"I think it was just good for us to come out and prove to ourselves that we can play good consistent baseball against them for three straight games," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "Obviously, beating Gio, who is going to be a 20-game winner, is big for us."
Jones produced an RBI single in a two-run third inning, and Minor showed great poise as he pitched around a couple of tough spots while allowing just one run over six innings. Once Dan Uggla capped a three-run seventh inning with a two-out, two-run single, the Braves were cruising toward their first sweep of the Nationals since September 2009.
The Braves are still 5 1/2 games behind the first-place Nationals in the National League East with just 15 games to play. While the odds of winning the division remain steep, this is a team that knows it is possible. The Braves blew the 4 1/2-game lead they owned over the Cardinals in the Wild Card chase with 15 games to play last year.
"Obviously, they've been the best team in baseball all year long," Uggla said. "We've got 15 or 16 games left. After what happened to us last year, we all know anything can happen."
If the Braves are fortunate enough to hold on to the eight-game advantage they hold in the Wild Card standings, there is a chance they could again face the Nationals in the postseason. This might have seemed like a problem a month ago when the Nationals had won 10 of the first 14 games played in the season series.
But the Braves won the final four games against the Nationals this year and eight of the final 14 games in the season series.
"You like to leave a sour taste in the other team's mouth when they're leaving," 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."
After seeing his team get swept by the Brewers last week, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez gathered his players before Friday's series opener and told a joke just before the start of batting practice. This might have added to the relaxed approach that carried into Sunday's series finale, when they forced Gio Gonzalez to throw 83 pitches through the first three innings.
The Braves produced all of their necessary damage during the two-run third inning. Michael Bourn drew a leadoff walk and moved to third base on Jason Heyward's hit-and-run single. Jones followed with his RBI single to left-center field, and Freddie Freeman capped the inning with a sacrifice fly.
"Gio did a good job of battling," Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "He didn't have his best stuff, obviously, but he kept us in the game. And we had some chances to get some runs, but their guy made some pitches. I think they played well and we didn't play that great. That's what happens when you play good teams like that. If you don't play good, they're not going to give you any breaks."
The early advantage proved to be enough for Minor, who has compiled a 2.32 ERA in his past 13 starts. The only damage he incurred came in the sixth inning, when he allowed a leadoff double to Bryce Harper, who later scored on Ian Desmond's two-out single.
"That's the kind of pitching performances we need against other teams' aces, because our ace is not going to match up against their ace," Jones said. "Our No. 5 [starter] has to be able to go out there and match other people's No. 1's pitch for pitch, and he outpitched a 20-game winner."
After Freeman's double off Gonzalez put runners at second and third with no outs in the sixth inning, Uggla made the mistake of popping up Craig Stammen's 3-0 fastball. Stammen then retired David Ross and Andrelton Simmons to escape the inning unscathed and with the Braves still leading by just one run.
Uggla made amends one inning later with his two-run single off Sean Burnett.
"Playing this kind of baseball is what's going to give us an opportunity to achieve what we all set out in Spring Training to do, and that's to give us a shot at the World Series," Jones said.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.