Braves sweep Nats on the road, run winning streak to nine games

WASHINGTON – After seeing most pundits pick Washington to repeat as division champions and hearing analysts gush over the Nationals as the best team in the National League, the Braves came to town and showed why they intend to have plenty of say in such matters.

They pounded Gio Gonzalez for seven runs in the first three innings, and Paul Maholm combined with two for a four-hitter Sunday in a 9-0 rout that gave the Braves a three-games series sweep of the Nationals and pushed Atlanta’s winning streak to nine games and its majors-best record to 11-1.

Chris Johnson had four hits including a two-run single in the first inning, and Justin Upton and Andrelton Simmons each homered in the four-run third inning for the Braves, who swept a six-game road trip to Miami and Washington and have their best season-opening record in nearly two decades, plus a four-game lead over the Nationals (7-5).

“We’ve been playing pretty good and we know the Nationals are supposed to be pretty good,” Simmons said. “So it was good to make a statement early, let them know we’re going to be tough to beat. That was a great win for us.”

Washington slipped to third place, a half-game behind the New York Mets. The Nationals had been 6-0 at home before the Braves came to town.

“I don’t think they took us by surprise at all,” Nationals center fielder Denard Span said. “We knew they were a good team coming in here. They came in and gave a good, old-fashioned kick in the butt.

Justin Upton led off the third inning with his major league-leading seventh homer, and four batters later Simmons hit a three-run homer that was his first. B.J. Upton also had three hits, one fewer than he had all season prior to Sunday.

“We’re playing good baseball,” B.J. said, “and to come in and sweep these guys, and the way we won a couple of pretty close ballgames, got a couple of timely hits…. Overall, a pretty good road trip, and we go back home for an off day and get ready for Tuesday.”

After a day off Monday, the Braves play Kansas City in a two-game interleague series at Turner Field, then hit the road again for a 10-game trip to Pittsburgh, Colorado and Detroit. By the end of that demanding stretch they’ll have played 16 of 18 games on the road.

“I don’t think we’re going to play .998 baseball the rest of the way, but it sure is better than 1-11,” said manager Fredi Gonzalez, who has the Braves off to their best start since they went 13-1 in 1994. “It’s a nice finish to a nice road trip, and we’re going to go home and I guess just change clothes and get back on the road again.

“Both teams (Braves and Nationals) are real good ballclubs. We’ll see what happens the rest of the summer.”

Braves pitchers have a sparkling 1.43 ERA and three shutouts during the nine-game winning streak to lower their majors-best ERA to 1.81. Maholm (3-0) has 20-1/3 scoreless innings in three starts and hasn’t allowed an earned run in 45 consecutive innings including his last five spring-training starts.

“The guys made plays and I went out there up 3-0 before I got to pitch, so obviously that gets you to settle down a little quicker,” said Maholm, who allowed four hits and one walk with seven strikeouts in 7-2/3 innings, and got his first win in five starts at Nationals Park. “Any time you play a team in your division you want to take the series, and if you have a chance to sweep you want to get it, no matter if it’s now or it’s September.”

The Braves have their longest winning streak since a nine-gamer in May-June 2010, and they have also won seven in a row against the Nationals going back to Aug. 22, 2012. They have a 1.27 ERA in that streak against the Nationals, who’ve scored one or no runs in five of the seven games.

“I still don’t think that they’re better than us,” said Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa. “They’re hot right now. They’ve come back on people. They’re playing well. It doesn’t last forever. I’m not worried about. … I’ll be real confident going into the next 16 games (against them).”

Most other players on both sides were a little more cautious or gracious with their comments. The teams play five more series this season, the next one a four-game set in Atlanta that starts April 29.

“This is week 2, man, the first series against them,” said Jason Heyward, who had an RBI double in the two-run sixth inning. “A sweep is a sweep. That’s that. But it’s a long season. April’s April. We’ve got to keep this going.”

Maholm said: “They’re a great team. The Phillies are a great team. So it’s going to be tough. It’s good to get off to a good start and not be trying to climb up the whole year. Kind of like my little run, the run the team’s on – ride it as long as it’ll go, and just see how it ends up.”