Atlanta Braves catcher Christian Bethancourt, left, talks with starting pitcher Ervin Santana during the first inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park, Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Alex Brandon
September 09, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) Mathematicians will say the Washington Nationals can't clinch the NL East until next week. Practicality says they essentially wrapped it up Tuesday night when they sent nine hitters to the plate against Ervin Santana in the first inning of another win over the Atlanta Braves.

The Nationals beat their division nemesis for the second time in two nights, winning 6-4 to push their lead to nine games with 19 to play. Atlanta had been a thorn in Washington's plans for about a year and a half, but the Nationals have put the kibosh on that trend by winning five of the last seven meetings.

''It feels like we're just that much closer,'' first baseman Adam LaRoche said. ''Not to take anything for granted until this thing is sewn up, but these are big. This time of year, playing the team chasing you, to be able to win a couple.''

LaRoche kept up his torrid stretch with two hits and two RBIs, and Jordan Zimmermann (11-5) allowed four runs (two earned) with seven strikeouts and no walks in six innings. Zimmermann hasn't lost a decision since July 11 and is 5-0 - and the Nationals are 8-0 - in his last eight starts.

LaRoche is 9-for-19 with four home runs and 12 RBIs in his last six games, a run that started when he overcame back and elbow injuries and a stomach virus to punch in five RBIs as a late sub against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

He singled in a run off Santana (14-8) in the Nationals' four-run first inning and added another RBI single in the second. Both were hitting works of art: He held back just enough to get the end of the bat on a high changeup and poke a soft line drive up the middle, and lifted a low two-strike changeup into a line-drive hit to right.

Yet LaRoche says he isn't really in his best groove.

''You know, it feels good; it doesn't feel great,'' he said. ''I don't know how to explain that, other than just from experience. I know when it feels really good, but again, it feels good. I feel like I'm slowing things down, going a little deeper in counts and getting some pitches to hit.''

Santana settled down somewhat after his long first inning and stuck around through five. He gave up five runs, eight hits and four walks to fall to 7-2 since the All-Star break for the Braves, who remain in a crowded race for a wild card berth.

''You can't fully give up. We still have a chance,'' Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman said. ''Once we're fully eliminated from the division race, then we'll worry about the wild card.''


After struggling reliever Rafael Soriano lost the closer's job on Friday, Washington manager Matt Williams initially indicated he would go to a closer-by-committee.

Sure doesn't look that way. Drew Storen pitched the ninth for his third save in three days.

Williams wouldn't declare outright that Storen is the new closer, and he has an excuse to stay mum for at least one more day: Even if Storen has the job, he almost certainly wouldn't pitch in four straight games.


Gonzalez offered a random thought on Clayton Kershaw, wondering if the Dodgers lefty has become too dominant for the usual set of stats: ''I think you start counting how many hard foul balls he gives up instead of counting ERA. Six hard hit balls in foul territory.''


Braves: C Evan Gattis (strep throat) remained at the team's hotel for the second day in a row. Gonzalez said Gattis could return Friday for the opener of a three-game series in Texas. ... 2B Tommy La Stella was scratched from the starting lineup with a migraine, but he appeared as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning.

Nationals: SS Ian Desmond's back tightened up before the game, and he left after five innings. He said he has had a similar problem two or three times this year, but he should be able to play Wednesday. ... 3B Ryan Zimmerman took on-field batting practice for the first time since injuring his right hamstring on July 22.


Atlanta's Aaron Harang (10-10, 3.87 ERA) faces Washington's Stephen Strasburg (11-10, 3.43) on Wednesday as the Nationals go for the sweep in the three-game series.


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