Bill Ladson

Roark, Nationals open up space over Braves in NL East

Righty allows one run as Washington takes 1 1/2-game lead in division

Roark, Nationals open up space over Braves in NL East

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals have to feel good about themselves after defeating the Braves, 4-1, at Nationals Park on Sunday afternoon. After splitting the four-game series, the Nationals maintained their first-place lead in the National League East to a game and a half over Atlanta.

"That's a very good team over there. … They had our number the last year and a half, two years," left fielder Ryan Zimmerman said about the Braves. "This is a step in the right direction, but they are a very good team. I don't think they are going anywhere. We have to continue to play well against them if we want to go where we want to go."

Before Saturday's game, the Nationals were 7-20 against their division rivals over the last two seasons -- including 1-7 in 2014. But Nationals manager Matt Williams was pleased that his team was able to ignore the record and win the next two games.

"After the first two games, I'm proud of the guys for staying in there and battling," Williams said. "We talked about it many times -- you have to have a short memory. After the first two [losses], we had two good pitching performances and the guys battled to get some runs. They played two good defensive games and executed. That what we have to do to win games."

The next time the Nationals play the Braves, Williams realizes he is going to get the same questions that he received before the four-game series began such as how come you can't beat the Braves?

"I've been around the game a while," Williams said. "I realize the next time we play them, the same questions will come. It doesn't matter to me, it doesn't matter to them. We want to win tomorrow's game. Today is over. … We'll answer the questions if somebody asks and go on from there. If we do the things correctly on the field, we have a chance to win. And it's the same in that other clubhouse. Every game presents new challenges."

Sunday's game saw solid pitching from Tanner Roark, who lasted 5 1/3 innings and allowed one run on four hits. He retired nine of the first 10 hitters he faced. The one run was scored in the sixth inning when Freddie Freeman scored on a single by Justin Upton.

Roark [7-4] didn't have his best stuff, but his bread and butter was his slider. That's what the Nationals like about Roark. If he can't locate the fastball, he can go to other pitches. Roark admitted that he was not happy that Williams took him out of the game.

"I wanted to stay in," Roark said. "Overall, I felt it was a decent outing. ... We came out early and hit the ball. That's always a weight off your shoulders."

Williams took Roark out of the game because Roark had two long innings in the fifth and sixth. For Williams, it was a good time to put reliever Craig Stammen in the game. Stammen didn't allow a run in 1 2/3 innings.

After Stammen, Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano blanked Atlanta the rest of the game with Soriano getting his 17th save of the season.

The Nationals were able to get timely hits and a sacrifice against losing pitcher Ervin Santana, who lasted six innings. The Nationals scored two runs in the first inning as Anthony Rendon scored the first run of the game on a single by Adam LaRoche, while Jayson Werth scored on a sacrifice fly by Zimmerman.

Washington made it 3-1 in the fifth inning when Denard Span drove in Sandy Leon with a double.

The Nationals scored their fourth run in the eighth inning. Braves left-hander Luis Avilan threw a wild pitch, which allowed Rendon to score.

"They're a good ballclub and they're in their park," Braves third baseman Chris Johnson said. "So a four-game set, taking two games, you can't be too upset about that. After taking the first two, I think you would have liked to have squeezed one more in there. But you've got to give them credit, their pitchers Roark and [Doug] Fister did a great job of shutting us down."

The Nationals improved their record to 39-35 and go to Milwaukee to play the Brewers.

"It's never easy in this league,'" Zimmerman said. "You have to go in every series and try and win the series."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the Time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.