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.
Nats (17-7) vs. Royals (13-11) at Kauffman Stadium
The Nationals rolled through St. Louis this weekend to secure their first sweep of the Cardinals since 2007. It was an impressive series against a team that led baseball with 100 wins last year. And now, on Monday night, they will face another of MLB's most talented clubs.
The Nats begin a three-game set with the defending champion Kansas City Royals with an 8:15 p.m. first pitch. Gio Gonzalez (1-1, 1.42) and right-hander Edinson Volquez (3-1, 3.34) are the scheduled starters.
Gio is pitching his fifth game of the 2016 season and is off to the best start of his career. The Nats' southpaw is holding opponents to a .196 average and .489 OPS. The Royals, though, will be his biggest challenge to date.
Gonzalez will pitch to Jose Lobaton per usual, though Wilson Ramos is back from the bereavement list. The rest of the Nats' lineup is as expected with Stephen Drew in there as the designated hitter.
First pitch: 8:15 p.m.
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - Gio Gonzalez vs. Royals - Edinson Volquez
CF Michael Taylor
3B Anthony Rendon
RF Bryce Harper
1B Ryan Zimmerman
2B Daniel Murphy
LF Jayson Werth
DH Stephen Drew
C Jose Lobaton
SS Danny Espinosa
(LHP Gio Gonzalez)
SS Alcides Escobar
CF Lorenzo Cain
1B Eric Hosmer
DH Kendrys Morales
LF Alex Gordon
C Salvador Perez
2B Omar Infante
3B Christian Colon
RF Paulo Orlando
(RHP Edinson Volquez)
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You're going to lobe this story. Wait, sorry, you're going to love this story.
Before the Nationals' weekend series against the Cardinals that started on Friday, a former player and current pal of Dusty Baker named Kirk Rueter stopped by to say hello. It was there when things took a turn for the weird, according to USA TODAY Sports' Bob Nightengale.
As a pitcher under Baker with the Giants, Rueter apparently developed a reputation for having incredibly good fortune. With that in mind, Baker — whose team had just been swept at home by the Phillies — wanted to take advantage of his penchant for luck.
So he had his buddy walk through Washington's clubhouse and told his roster to rub his ears.
Yes, this is a thing that happened.
The bizarre superstition, of course, seemed to work, considering the Nats took all three games from St. Louis, an organization that has given them fits before. Next up is a four-game tilt in Kansas City. Rueter better bring his ears.
MORE NATIONALS: WHY NATS PITCHERS THROWING MORE PITCHES ISN'T WORRISOME
Bryce Harper's hot start to the 2016 season has earned him the NL player of the month award for the month of April.
The Nats slugger saw his batting average dip to .286 by month's end, but finished April with nine homers, 24 RBI and six steals. Harper eclipsed the 100 career homers mark on April 14 and at one point hit a home run in four consecutive games.
Other highlights from Harper's April include an eight game RBI steak, a six game streak of hitting home runs at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Harper's first career pinch-hit homer and his first two career grand slams. His first grand slam was on career homer No. 100.
The reigning NL MVP, Harper has won NL player of the month one other time in his career, in May of 2015. Max Scherzer also won the NL pitcher of the month award twice last season, in May and June.
Harper, 23, is batting .273/.390/.679 this season in 24 games. He was the co-NL player of the week for April 11-17 with Nolan Arenado of the Rockies.
Manny Machado of the Baltimore Orioles won the AL player of the month award for April.