Nationals beat Braves to clinch NL East

The Nationals are the NL East champions. The Braves are showing no signs they’ll join them in the postseason.

Washington defeated the Braves 3-0 on Tuesday at Turner Field to clinch the division. The Braves are now 5 ½ games behind Pittsburgh for the second and final NL wild card berth with 11 games to play.

“We’ve still got a chance and that’s all we can do is come in every day with a chance,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “Now we’ve got to set our sights on—not that we haven’t—but we’ve got to set our sights on a winning streak and maybe we can come in the second wild card.”

The Braves (75-76) lost their fifth straight game and eighth in nine to fall below .500 for the first time since they were 0-1. It was the fourth time in 14 games this month that the Braves failed to score a run.

Such offensive futility is the main reason there’s little reason to believe the Braves can produce the long winning streak they’ll need to earn a wild card. The Braves play the Pirates four times next week but, with runs hard to come by, that series could end up being anticlimactic.

“It’s tough,” Braves third baseman Chris Johnson said. “It’s a grind. We can’t just all get on the same page offensively together. That’s been the story of the year. There’s still games left so we will keep grinding.”

Right-hander Aaron Harang has been among the bright spots for the Braves this season. He’s part of the rotation that prevented the season from derailing long before it did.

But Harang (11-11) continued the pattern of Braves pitchers who take a loss because they aren’t perfect and their hitters are powerless.

“It’s tough because I know how much everybody is putting in work,” Harang said. “Everybody is trying to get through this funk. I think sometimes you tend to press a little too much.”

The Nationals (87-63) managed just five hits against Harang over seven innings but one of them was Ian Desmond’s two-run home run. The Braves also had five hits against Nationals starter Tanner Roark over seven innings but all were singles and none came with runners on base.

Harang escaped jams in the first and second innings and allowed just one base runner over the next three. Washington finally got to him in the sixth when Desmond turned on his 2-2 pitch and smashed it about 400 feet into the left-field seats.

“It comes down to it, in those pitchers’ duels, to whoever makes the first mistake,” Harang said. “That’s what happened. I threw a slider that just spun up there and didn’t have any break on it and was right in the middle of the plate. Desmond jumped all over it.”

The Braves hit singles off Roark (14-10) to lead off the first, third, fourth and sixth innings. None of those base runners scored as the Braves faltered with ground outs, fly outs, pop outs and strikeouts.

Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman came closest to ending the flailing. His sixth inning drive to center field died just short of the warning track, where Denard Span snagged it with no problem.

That play may have prompted the loudest cheers of the night from Braves fans. There was little else for them to celebrate.

Later, the Braves and their fans got to watch the Nationals celebrate the NL East title on the field.

“You never want anybody celebrate on your field but they did it professionally, I thought,” Gonzalez said. “I didn’t expect anything else from that organization. They run it first class.”