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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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Nationals rally against Rivero, beat Pirates 10-7

Nationals rally against Rivero, beat Pirates 10-7

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The tag was clearly fake. What happened next was all too real for the NL East champion Washington Nationals: Bryce Harper got hurt and needs X-rays.

Harper injured his left thumb making an awkward slide to avoid a pretend tag by Pittsburgh third baseman Jung Ho Kang, and the teams later cleared the benches Sunday in Washington's 10-7 win.

Nationals manager Dusty Baker said Harper was "sore" and would have X-rays on Monday. The reigning NL MVP had surgery to repair a torn ligament in the same thumb in 2014.

Harper led off the third inning with a triple. As he neared third, Kang acted as if a throw was coming and feigned a tag.

Harper went down, was checked by a trainer and stayed in. He scored on Anthony Rendon's double and was replaced in the field in the bottom half by Chris Heisey.

Kang insisted he merely intended to keep Harper from scoring when right fielder Josh Bell's throw was way off line.

"First of all, I meant no harm," Kang said through a translator. "During the relay play, I tried to hold the runner on third base. That's all I tried to do."

The next time Kang came up, Nationals starter A.J. Cole threw a fastball behind him and was immediately ejected by plate umpire Jordan Baker as the benches emptied.

Cole said he was trying to pitch inside to Kang. Baker said the entire situation wasn't ideal for a team that is focusing on a playoff run.

"We don't want guys suspended," Baker said. "But you know, boys will be boys, and you've still got to defend your teammates."

Washington's Jayson Werth was in the middle of the skirmish. Pirates outfielder Sean Rodriguez was ejected.

"I was very surprised I was the only one ejected considering," Rodriguez said. "I got blamed for being the one that instigated, but you can watch the film yourself."

Werth had a pinch-hit, two-run homer and Heisey had a go-ahead single during a five-run burst in the eighth. The Nationals' rally came against former teammate Felipe Rivero (1-5).

Rivero had allowed just four earned runs in his previous 25 innings since being traded from Washington to the Pirates.

Kang hit a two-run homer off Koda Glover to give the Pirates the lead in the seventh.

Shawn Kelley (3-2) wound up with the win. Former Pirates closer Mark Melancon pitched a scoreless ninth for his 43rd save.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Pirates: C Francisco Cervelli did not play after taking a foul ball off his wrist Saturday. ... RHP Neftali Feliz (arm) threw off flat ground but is not yet ready for a return to the mound.

UP NEXT

Nationals: Tanner Roark (15-9 2.70 ERA) had his start pushed back one day after the Nationals clinched the NL East on Saturday night. He'll looking for his career-best 16th win as Washington hosts Arizona for a four-game series.

Pirates: Chad Kuhl (5-3, 3.73 ERA) will start as Pittsburgh begins a four-game series against the NL Central champion Chicago Cubs. Kuhl has allowed seven earned runs in 7 1/3 innings in his two previous starts against Chicago this season.

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Benches clear in confrontation between Nats and Pirates

Benches clear in confrontation between Nats and Pirates

With the division title clinched the night before, it seemed the Nationals were poised for an uneventful series finale against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday afternoon. 

That wasn't to be, as the two clubs engaged in a benches clearing altercation in the bottom of the third inning. The tension started in the top of the frame, when Bryce Harper was injured while sliding to third base on a triple. The Nats took exception to Pirates third baseman Jung-ho Kang faking a tag on Harper, which may have led to the injury. 

So when Nats starter A.J. Cole threw behind Kang in the bottom of the inning, the near-fracas was ignited.

Cole was immediately ejected from the game, benches cleared, and each side exchanged words. The Pirates' Sean Rodriguez was also ejected from the game.