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WSH@ATL: Upton bashes a homer to deep center

ATLANTA -- As the Braves entered this season with an injury-depleted starting rotation, there was some reason to be concerned about the fact that they would play six of their first 12 games against the Nationals.

But those concerns steadily evaporated as this early stretch unfolded. Aaron Harang silenced those who doubted the value he would bring this rotation, and the Braves spent the past two weekends frustrating the Nats, much like they had all of last year.

Harang delivered the latest of his early-season gems and Justin Upton fueled yet another early-inning uprising that helped the Braves complete a three-game sweep with Sunday afternoon's 10-2 win over the Nationals.

"We want to go out there and play well," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "It doesn't matter who it is within the division, we've got to go out there and win games, because pennants are won in the division, not outside the division."

Along with notching their first series sweep of the season, the Braves improved to 18-7 against the Nationals dating back to last year. Like last year, Atlanta has won five of the first six games of this season series vs. Washington.

Consequently, the Braves have strengthened their bid to defend the division title by exiting this season's first two weeks with a one-game lead in the National League East standings.

"We just go out there and play," Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons said. "Maybe when we're out there playing them, we do well for whatever reason. If anything, it might be in their head. But we just go out there and try to compete. For some reason, we always seem to be victorious against them."

Simmons tripled in the first inning and then drilled a three-run homer in the eighth to cap a nightmarish weekend for the Nationals, who lost Denard Span and Ryan Zimmerman to injuries during the first two games of this series.

Adding to the misery was the fact that Upton is currently in the midst of one of his ridiculous streaks. The Braves' left fielder notched three-hit performances in the first two games of this series, then fueled Sunday's three-run first inning with a two-run homer off Gio Gonzalez. He has recorded 11 hits, including four home runs, in the 14 at-bats he has totaled over the past four games.

"When he gets locked in like this, it's a lot of fun to watch," said B.J. Upton, who backed his younger brother's efforts while notching multihit performances in the final two games of the series.

Tyler Pastornicky began Atlanta's three-run third inning with a triple and Freeman highlighted the frame with a towering two-run shot. Freeman remained at the plate momentarily, thinking the moonshot was bound to hook foul, but it stayed true and fell into the right-field seats.

Freeman's fourth home run served as just a portion of the damage incurred by Gonzalez, who was charged with six earned runs and nine hits in six innings. The Washington left-hander has gone 0-5 with a 5.75 ERA in the six starts he has made against Atlanta since the start of last year.

"It [stinks] getting beat, but we can play with them," Nats shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We know how we can play. ... Nobody is going to sit in the corner and cry about it, but at the same time you know it's a tough hill to climb."

The early support was more than enough for Harang, who limited the Nationals to one run and five hits over six innings. Harang has surrendered just two runs in the 18 2/3 innings that have encompassed his first three starts. In other words, the 35-year-old veteran has thus far vastly exceeded any expectations that existed when the Braves signed him on March 24, hours after he had been released by the Indians.

"I think the biggest thing is just being confident, knowing that I can locate my pitches and also just being able to keep their hitters off balance," said Harang, who the Braves believed was better suited than Freddy Garcia to provide depth to their rotation.

B.J. Upton subjected himself to scrutiny when he did not hustle down the first-base line to prevent the Nats from completing a double play in Friday's fifth inning, but he proved his legs are still valuable weapons again on Sunday.

Before laying down a first-inning bunt that drew an errant throw from Gonzalez, the elder Upton ranged into the left-center-field gap to deny Jayson Werth a run-producing extra-base hit. He also chased down Kevin Frandsen's fly ball just before connecting with the center-field wall in the seventh inning.

"That's what you try to do every night, just play hard and see what happens," B.J. Upton said. "Things have started to come together the past couple of days and I'm starting to feel a little bit better."

The Braves and Nationals will play 13 more times during the final 5 1/2 months of the season. Many different storylines and trends will transpire between now and October. But as last year proved, early-season success against a division rival can serve as a sign of things to come.

"It doesn't matter if it's early [in the season] or not, you want to win games in your division," Simmons said. "To take all three away from them, it's pretty big." Comments