ATLANTA — Sunday night, when the Washington Nationals needed runs to break a tied score, a relic from their past lumbered in from left field. Livan Hernandez, the man who threw the first pitch in Nationals history, the soft-tosser who started opening day last year and became obsolete this year, emerged from the Atlanta Braves’ bullpen. The carnage that followed felt like a rally wrapped inside some kind of ritual, the Nationals at once pounding the Braves and further smashing their own history into dust.
The Nationals’ lambasting of Hernandez lifted them to a 7-2 victory at Turner Field and a resounding sweep of the Braves, their first this season after nine chances. Gio Gonzalez silenced the Braves with seven electric innings, striking out 10 while allowing one lonely hit. Gonzalez bettered Brandon Beachy, the major league ERA leader, who received little help from the collapsing team around him.
(Kevin C. Cox/GETTY IMAGES) - Gio Gonzalez of the Washington Nationals pitches to the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field.
The Nationals gave up a four-prospect haul for Gonzalez and signed him to a seven-year contract extension. Nine starts into his Nationals tenure, “he’s better than what I expected,” Manager Davey Johnson said.
By the time Bryce Harper came to bat against Hernandez in the eighth inning, the outcome had already been decided. There they stood, a key figure of the Nationals’ past and the most vivid symbol of their bright future. Hernandez threw Harper a 79-mph cutter down the middle. Harper unleashed his vicious swing. The ball tore a hole in the starless Southern sky. It landed seven or eight rows deep behind the right field fence. Harper sprinted around the bases.
“I was just sitting on something I could drive,” Harper said. “Livo throws really slow.”
On Memorial Day, the Nationals will wake up in first place in the National League East, 21
2 games clear of the second place New York Mets, two divisional opponents vanquished and one more on tap. On the trip that was supposed to test them, they have beaten the Philadelphia Phillies and swept the Braves. Monday afternoon, on scant sleep, they will start a three-game series against the Miami Marlins.
“We’ll be on our A game when we go down there,” Johnson said. “It’s difficult to get in at 3 o’clock when you’ve got a day game. But that’s what happens when you become a popular team. Everybody wants you on the air.”
The Nationals have surged to their lofty place while 10 players — including their catcher, closer, cleanup hitter and $126 million right fielder — have landed on the disabled list. Sunday night seemed to bring another health challenge. Jesus Flores went 3 for 4 with two RBI, but he left in the seventh inning with a right hamstring injury after limping from first to second on a sac bunt.
The postgame brought an initial sigh of relief for a team already without first-string catcher Wilson Ramos for the whole season and original third-stringer Sandy Leon. Johnson called the injury “more of a mild strain” and Flores described it as “minor tightness.” Both said he would not need to go on the disabled list. Flores said he hopes to return Tuesday or Wednesday, and backup Carlos Maldonado would have caught Monday, anyway.