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Instant analysis: Braves 5, Nats 1

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Instant analysis: Braves 5, Nats 1

Game in a nutshell: The Nationals entered the weekend hoping to deliver a knockout punch to the Braves but knowing they'd still find themselves in great shape if they could just win one of three games. After dropping the first two by one run a piece, they suddenly found themselves in a must-win situation on Sunday Night Baseball. They couldn't get the job done. Gio Gonzalez labored his way through five-plus innings and departed without a chance to earn his 20th win. The previously red-hot lineup was again thwarted by Atlanta's pitching staff, starting with left-hander Mike Minor. And the Nats' bullpen and defense betrayed them late, allowed three insurance runs in the bottom of the seventh despite the Braves recording only one hit in the inning. All of a sudden, their 8 12-game lead is down to 5 12. With only 16 games to play, they're still in a highly advantageous position. But the division title won't come so easy anymore. And should these two teams meet again in October, the Braves will feel plenty confident about their chances to win a head-to-head series.

Hitting lowlight: They didn't give themselves many opportunities, but they squandered what few they had. Never was that more apparent than in the top of the fourth, when with two on and one out, Danny Espinosa stepped to the plate and grounded into a 6-4-3 double play on the first pitch he saw from Minor. That actually proved to be one of Espinosa's more productive at-bats of the series, if only because he made contact. After making a quick, cross-country trip to Arizona for his grandmother's funeral on Thursday, he looked completely out of sync at the plate this weekend. Espinosa's final batting line for the series: 0-for-11, nine strikeouts, one double play grounded into, one pop-out.

Pitching lowlight: With a chance to become the majors' first 20-game winner -- and to do it on a national stage -- Gonzalez labored from the start and couldn't recover until it was too late. He fell behind hitters, then watched as the Braves fouled off everything in sight. The left-hander went to a three-ball count on eight of the first 14 hitters he faced, walking three of them. He needed 83 pitches to complete three innings, and at that point it looked like he might not even complete the minimum five innings required to qualify for the win. Then a couple of 1-2-3 frames got Gonzalez back on track and left him at 103 pitches entering the sixth. Davey Johnson could have been satisfied with that but he decided to give his starter one more chance. That proved costly, because Gonzalez opened the sixth with a walk and a towering double, ultimately getting the hook after that.

Key stat: There have been 21 20-win seasons in Washington baseball history. Twelve of them were recorded by Walter Johnson between 1910-25.

Up next: After a late-night flight home, the Nationals will enjoy a day off before opening a three-game series against the wild-card-contending Dodgers. Right-handers Jordan Zimmermann and Aaron Harang are scheduled to start Tuesday's opener at 7:05 p.m.

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Nats close homestand against Pirates day after clinch

Nats close homestand against Pirates day after clinch

Nats (90-64) vs. Pirates (77-77) at PNC Park

Saturday night was a big party in Pittsburgh as the Nationals clinched their third NL East title in the last five years. On Sunday, they have a quick turnaround with a 1:35 p.m. start to finish off their final homestand.

Rookie A.J. Cole (1-2, 4.68) will get the start as the Nats now turn their sights towards securing home field advantage in the NL Division Series. He's coming off a two-run, four-inning outing against the Marlins.

Right-hander Tyler Glasnow (0-1, 4.11) will pitch for the Pirates. A rookie, Glasnow has never faced the Nationals before.

The Nationals lead the Dodgers, their likely NLDS opponent, by just 1 1/2 games. They need to stay ahead of them to secure home field advantage in the playoffs. If they each finish with the same record, the Dodgers will get the tiebreaker due to their head-to-head record this season.

First pitch: 1:35 p.m.
TV: MASN
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - A.J. Cole vs. Pirates - Tyler Glasnow

NATS

CF Ben Revere
2B Wilmer Digo
RF Bryce Harper
3B Anthony Rendon
1B Clint Robinson 
SS Danny Espinosa
LF Brian Goodwin
C Jose Lobaton
RHP A.J. Cole

PIRATES

TBA
RHP Tyler Glasnow

CLICK HERE FOR LIVE STATS AND SCORES

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Dusty Baker on Nats clinching 2016 NL East title: 'I love this team'

Dusty Baker on Nats clinching 2016 NL East title: 'I love this team'

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Jayson Werth's wide grin belied the fact that the Washington Nationals right fielder is an old hand at clubhouse celebrations, having played on eight division-winning teams during his 14-year big league career.

Werth's latest crown came Saturday night when the Nationals clinched their third National League East title in five years, beating the Pittsburgh Pirates 6-1 behind 5 1/3 scoreless innings from rookie reliever Reynaldo Lopez.

"It's never gets old," Werth said. "Never."

Stephen Drew's two-run single capped a three-run first inning for the Nationals, who return to the postseason after a one-year absence. Their win ensured a playoff berth, and they won the division about 20 minutes later when the second-place New York Mets lost to Philadelphia.

"It's such a hard thing to accomplish," Werth said. "You spent six months trying to do it. It's why you go to spring training early, so you can do everything possible to put yourself in positon to win the division."

The Nationals won the division in Dusty Baker's first season as manager. He replaced Matt Williams, who fired following a 2015 season that began with high hopes of Washington reaching the World Series for the first time in franchise history.

Baker had been out of the game for two years after being fired by the Cincinnati Reds following the 2013 season, four days after they lost to the Pirates in the NL wild card.

"That's what I came here for," Baker said, standing in a corner of the clubhouse and watching his players celebrate. "I'm telling you -- let these young men have a great time tonight, back to work tomorrow. First step in a four-step process. This step is the hardest to get. I'm just so happy for these guys. I love them. I love this team."

Lopez (4-3) came on to the start the bottom of the fourth inning with a 6-1 lead and allowed three hits while striking out five and walking one. He was removed a runner on first and one out in the ninth inning.

"He was really impressive," Werth said. "We still have some questions about our roster going into the postseason. He's a great talent and if he pitches like he did tonight he can really help us."

Marc Rzepczynski and Blake Treinen got one out each to end the game, and a pocket of Nationals' fans behind the visiting dugout cheered.

Joe Ross allowed one run and five hits over 2 2/3 innings in his second start since missing 2 months with right shoulder inflammation.

Drew's single came after Bryce Harper's sacrifice fly. Harper also drove in a run with a grounder during a three-run fourth that included three errors and increased the Nationals' lead to 6-1. Jayson Werth hit into a run-scoring forceout and Anthony Rendon had a sacrifice fly.

Wilson Ramos had three hits for the Nationals, and Drew and Werth added two each.