WASHINGTON — The calendar says it’s August and, thanks to Justin Upton’s tiebreaking homer Monday night, the Atlanta Braves are 13½ games ahead of the Washington Nationals in the NL East.
“I thought,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said, “that the division was going to be a lot closer.”
Upton led off the eighth inning with his 20th homer, and Atlanta extended its winning streak to a season-high 11 games by beating fading Washington, 3-2.
“You want to step on their necks, especially when we’ve got this big of a lead,” said Freddie Freeman, who drove in Atlanta’s first two runs with a pair of singles off Stephen Strasburg in the third and fifth. “We can expand it a little bit more against them. I think we set the tone tonight.”
Reliever David Carpenter (3-0) earned the win by retiring all five batters he faced after Mike Minor went six-plus innings, giving up eight hits and three walks, yet allowing only two runs. With Braves closer Craig Kimbrel getting a night off after pitching in the previous three games, Jordan Walden earned his first save of the season, but not without some difficulty.
Walden gave up a leadoff single to Anthony Rendon, who went to second on Denard Span’s sacrifice bunt — although Nationals manager Davey Johnson wanted Span to try to bunt for a hit there. Rendon took third with one out on Walden’s wild pitch, giving Washington a terrific opportunity to tie the score.
But clutch hitting was the Nationals’ biggest problem on this night — and all season, really — and Scott Hairston popped out to the catcher in foul territory, before pinch-hitter Chad Tracy flied out to left.
The Nationals again failed to provide much run support for Strasburg, who struck out nine in seven innings, allowing two runs and five hits. The last five times he’s allowed two earned runs or fewer, Washington lost.
In every inning from the second through seventh, the Nationals put the leadoff batter on base, but had little to show for it.
The Braves, meanwhile, did a lot with a little. In the third, they followed two infield hits with Freeman’s blooper on a 3-0 pitch.
“Lucky golf swing,” Freeman called it.
In the fifth, Upton got a two-out single and came home on Freeman’s single after stealing second, a recurring issue for Strasburg.
“He has the same pattern every time,” Johnson lamented. “He’s very quick to the plate, but he is locked in his ways.”
Upton, who went 3 for 4, delivered his 20th homer on a 3-2 changeup from Tyler Clippard (6-2), who replaced Strasburg to begin the eighth.
“Not a good pitch,” Clippard said.
Shaking his head, along with a plastic water bottle in his right hand, Clippard summed up where things stand for the Nationals at the moment, saying: “We’ve got to turn this thing around. If it’s going to happen, it’s got to happen soon. ... Two months left, and we’re 13 games back. So we’ve got to get moving.”
Washington led the majors with 98 wins in 2012. But Atlanta’s 12½-game cushion entering Monday was the largest margin through Aug. 4 in any division since 2005, when the Chicago White Sox led the AL Central by 14 games, according to STATS.
NOTES: Nationals RF Jayson Werth originally was listed as hitting cleanup but was scratched from the starting lineup during batting practice because of a lingering groin injury. He pinch hit for Strasburg with a man on second in the seventh and struck out. ... Werth was selected as NL Player of the Month for July, after hitting .367 with seven homers and 22 RBIs. He led the league in RBIs and on-base percentage (.450). ... In Game 2 of the series Tuesday, LHP Gio Gonzalez (7-4, 3.57) pitches for Washington, while RHP Julio Teheran (8-5, 3.02) starts for Atlanta. ... Gonzalez was cleared Monday by Major League Baseball after its investigation of players linked in media reports to a clinic accused of distributing performance-enhancing drugs. Gonzalez, third in NL Cy Young Award voting last year, said Monday he has “no lingering sense of animosity” over being connected to the case. ... Atlanta 2B Dan Uggla made a nice diving grab of Ian Desmond’s liner in the third.
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