- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 14, 2013

Shoulders slumped, head down: Gio Gonzalez struck the pose of a defeated man on the mound Sunday afternoon. In each of their own ways, the rest of the Washington Nationals followed suit.

Over the course of a nine-inning demolition job by the Atlanta Braves, the Nationals could take solace in few things — the primary one being that the smolderingly hot Braves would be replaced in the opposing dugout by the lowly Miami Marlins within 24 hours.

A 9-0 shellacking that finished off a Braves sweep was the Nationals‘ parting gift as they packed up and prepared for a week on the road that will take them through the parts of the division that seem far less fearsome than what Atlanta brought to Washington this weekend.

“They came in and gave a good, old-fashioned kick in the butt,” center fielder Denard Span said.

“We just got waffled today,” manager Davey Johnson said.

It started with their pitcher, who surrendered seven of those nine runs in an explosive first three innings of work that featured six hits, three walks and Ryan Zimmerman’s third throwing error in as many days. Evan Gattis clubbed a two-run homer in the first, Andrelton Simmons a three-run shot to blow things open in the third.

“The Braves are running hot right now,” said Gonzalez, who lasted five innings but allowed more earned runs than he ever had in a Nationals uniform.

“I take the blame on this one 100 percent. I didn’t give these guys a chance to swing it or do anything today.”

From there it devolved.

Danny Espinosa was hit with a pitch on the right wrist that caused pain so great it forced him from the game. X-rays were negative, though the wrist was swollen, and by the end of the game the Nationals were playing with just five of their starting nine. The other four, however, came out as Johnson tried to get his bench some work on the back end of a blowout.

The Nationals hardly made Paul Maholm work for his domination Sunday. Four hits, all harmless singles, were all they could muster off the Braves‘ starter through 7 2/3 innings of work. He didn’t reach 100 pitches until he was into the eighth inning, and even then he finished at just 113.

Over the course of the three-game sweep, the Nationals were outscored 18-5. In the series’ final 26 innings, they mustered a solitary run. They blew a three-run lead Friday, never led Saturday and essentially watched things go up in flames from the outset Sunday.

They cautioned, however, that it’s far too early to draw conclusions from any results — good or bad.

“You can’t just judge a team on the first 12 games,” Gonzalez said. “It’s impossible. You’ve got to give us a chance.”

“This division got tougher,” added shortstop Ian Desmond, who joined six other Nationals starting position players with a hitless afternoon. “I don’t think there’s going to be a 100-game winner in this division. I really don’t. I think it’s going to be a battle all year long.

“They played great. If we play a little better, we’d probably put ourselves in a better position. We got a good taste of what they’re bringing to the table this year.”

When the season is a little older, and the postseason doesn’t seem so incredibly far away, perhaps this weekend will look like a blip on the radar for a team widely expected to be a juggernaut. As Johnson put it, “It’s a whole lot of battles to win this war.”

The Braves are 11-1. The Nationals acknowledge they are fierce competition. But in the quiet of the clubhouse Sunday afternoon, they also acknowledged that’s an unsustainable pace. And with 16 more games between the two, they want to be there when that tide turns.

“I still don’t think that they’re better than us,” Espinosa said. “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 it.

“I’m going to be real confident going into these next 16 games.”

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