Hanson, Heyward help Braves split with Nats

Hanson, Heyward help Braves split with Nats

Hanson, Heyward help Braves split with Nats
WASHINGTON -- Jason Heyward and Tommy Hanson have struggled to live up to the tremendous expectations they faced when they arrived at the Major League level. But the two former top prospects delivered in what might have been the Braves' most important victory to date this year.

Hanson overcame a pair of first-inning home runs, and Heyward halted his recent struggles with a go-ahead, two-run single that chased Gio Gonzalez in the fifth inning and propelled the Braves toward a 3-2 win over the Nationals on Sunday afternoon.

"It's nice to get back and just get a good rhythm going," Braves backup catcher David Ross said after the Braves won for the third time in the four games that have been played since enduring an eight-game losing streak.

With June's first week still unfolding, it is impossible to value the true significance of this victory. But if the Braves had not erased their early deficit in this finale of this two-game series they would have completed their first five games against the Nationals without a victory.

Being swept on consecutive weekends by the first-place Nationals would have been demoralizing. Instead, after all they have endured recently, the Braves sit just two games back in the tightly bunched National League East race.

"It's a good sign," Fredi Gonzalez said. "It's a good comeback after yesterday, when [Stephen] Strasburg really dominated us."

One day after managing just four hits against Strasburg in a 2-0 loss, the Braves seemed to be staring at disaster when Steve Lombardozzi and Bryce Harper started the bottom of the first inning with back-to-back home runs.

Suddenly Hanson had surrendered four home runs in a span of nine plate appearances dating back to Monday's forgettable 3 1/3-innings outing against the Cardinals. But instead of folding, the right-hander stayed strong through seven innings and gave the Braves a chance to capitalize on the multiple mistakes Gio Gonzalez made in the fifth inning.

The lefty was slow to cover first base on Michael Bourn's infield single to start the fifth inning. He later uncorked a wild pitch and issued a two-out walk to Matt Diaz after getting ahead with a 1-2 count. This set the stage for Heyward, who directed his decisive two-run single past shortstop Ian Desmond and into left field.

"Every time you have confidence," Heyward said. "I want to be in that situation every time. All I can do is go up there and battle and give myself the best opportunity. After that, everything is out of my hands."

Gonzalez, who had posted a 1.55 ERA in his past nine starts, was charged with three runs and a season-high seven hits in 4 2/3 innings. The left-hander had limited the Braves to one hit in seven innings last weekend in Atlanta.

"I thought [Gio Gonzalez] had pretty good stuff, but he had no command," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "His command was off today. He wasn't using the inside part of the plate. It's a rare occasion he doesn't have pretty good command, and today was one of them."  

  Heyward took advantage of a shaky Gio Gonzalez and possibly provided himself some confidence for the coming days and weeks. The 22-year-old outfielder had recorded just two hits in his previous 29 at-bats against left-handed pitchers. Plus, he had batted just .194 (25-for-129) in his previous 35 games.

Heyward's decisive single combined with some sound defensive work allowed Hanson to be rewarded with a win after completing his most impressive outing of the year. The first-inning home runs accounted for the only runs he allowed while throwing 84 pitches in seven innings. He faced the minimum during his final three innings, and retired the final seven batters he faced.

While the Nationals' aggressiveness aided them when Lombardozzi and Harper jumped on consecutive fastballs in the first inning, it hindered them as Hanson commanded his curveball and showed a two-seam fastball more frequently as the game progressed.

"Tommy kept us in the game, and that's huge for him," Ross said. "They have some good hitters. They're going to put the ball in play, and they're going to hit some home runs. Fortunately enough, he was able to calm down after that and shut them down the rest of the way."

Hanson pitched around Danny Espinosa's one-out double in the fourth inning, and got some help when Harper tried to stretch a double to a triple with one out in the fifth inning. A pair of strong throws by Heyward and Andrelton Simmons retired Harper on a close play at third base.

"[Hanson] could have been rattled after the first two balls leave the ballpark," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He didn't. We got two big knocks to get him just enough runs."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.